Today's date:
Winter 1987

Regaining Ground

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is the Democratic Senator from New York. As Assistant Secretary of Labor in 1965, he authored the controversial report, The Negro Family, which linked family breakdown to the culture of poverty.

It has become a belief bordering on prejudice that our present social ills are the consequence of misguided Democratic social policies of the past two generations. None hold this belief more guiltfully, if fervently, than Democrats themselves. There is scarcely a Democratic forum in the nation in which it is not proclaimed as a matter of revealed truth that the social welfare policies of the New Deal and Great Society are the root causes of today's urban social problems.

The evidence, in the main, is otherwise. However, as we sadly know, evidence has little influence in the early stages of debating new propositions. And that is where we are now.

A brief historic review of social policies is helpful in this re-examination. Political scientists pretty much agree on dividing the aspects of citizenship into three areas of rights and corresponding obligations. They are civil, political and social. In Western societies, these have been enhanced in a fairly recognizable progression.

Oversimplified, we begin with early civil rights, such as the right to a trial by jury. Then there are political rights, such as the right to vote. Then we get to the social rights like elementary and secondary schooling or the right to a subsistence living.

Until now, the United States has based most of its policies in each of these areas on European models. Early in the 20th century, American social reformers began pressing for the adoption of social policies already in place in Europe. Bismarck had introduced social security to Germany. Churchill had carried an unemployment bill to Parliament. The models were explicit, and in a six month period in 1935, they were enacted as the Social Security Act.

The only major changes since have been health insurance for the aged and indigent adopted in 1965, together with various provisions for the disabled adopted in that and the previous decade. Again, the models were in the main European, as were those of smaller ventures such as public housing.

The issues of social policy the United States faces today have no European counterpart nor any European model for a viable solution. They are American problems - some of which are appearing in Europe for the first time - and we Americans are going to have to think them through by ourselves.

In many, if not most of our major cities, we are facing something very like social regression, although that term may libel the past. Perhaps our condition is postmodern. The situation is defined by extraordinary levels of self-destructive behavior, interpersonal violence and extreme social class separation.

I spent a part of my youth in a neighborhood of New York then known as "Hell's Kitchen." By today's reckoning, it was kind of a peaceful kingdom. The violence of New York City today simply has no equivalent in the past and shows no sign of diminishing in the future.

Furthermore, we have become the first society in history in which children are the single worst off segment of the population. This is not just a just a few children, but if we include those up to eighteen years of age, perhaps half of our children. Not long ago, in a searing commencement address at Keuka College in New York, Judy Woodruff said we are, in fact, the only major western nation other than South Africa without a national child care policy. And the estimates are that by the year 2000 49% of children will sit down to supper in a one parent household.

We have no social policy for these children and few social programs. The only thing we know is chat the social problems which trouble us are exceedingly unlikely to cure themselves. A huge social effort will be required, something akin to social mobilization. Whatever else, it will be, first of all hardwork. Second, it will obviously require the support of government. Equally obvious, we are grievously short of specific ideas.

At the base of social policy there must be ideas. But for two decades, the Democrats have been a party fiercely opposed to ideas. This is the pattern of an establishment in decline, and that is what has been taking place.

This has not been true of Republicans. At the beginning of the Reagan Administration, there came 10 power a small but hugely influential group of people who had a simple, powerful idea. They would put an end to social policy, as Democrats had defined is, simply by dismantling the finances 4 the federal government. Thereafter, there would be no way to pay for social programs; indeed, it would become necessary to dismantle many, if not most of those programs.

In the person of David Stockman, the exercise became more sophisticated. By September of Stockman had realized that the GOP tax program would lead to horrendous, devastating deficits. At first dismayed, he suddenly grew near to triumphant. I quote from his book:

The success of the Reagan Revolution depended on to willingness of the politicians to turn against their own handiwork - the bloated budget of the American sifts soft Why would they do this? Because they had to! In the final analysis, I had made fiscal necessity the mother of political invention:

Now, all of this was not very hard to follow once in place, but we chose not to understand we were up against a deliberate strategy to in end to social policy as it had previously been understood.

But, this was nothing new. In the mid-60s, even as a moment of great opportunity for social initiatives arose, there also appeared a considerable body of research arguing that we should not exaggerate what we knew or what would come of what we undertook. In the main, this research was rejected and those who stood up for it were knocked down.

This is called shooting the messenger. Twenty years later, much the same thing happened, albeit more gently. Anyone who spoke up to say the Reagan Administration was deliberately disabling the finances of the federal government was simply ignored by those who should have been paying attention. So I will again summarize the outcome:

As of 1985, the operating revenues of the federal government have declined to 12.9% of GNP. This compared with 18% in 1965. (Operating revenues are distinct from the revenues of Social Security Tax.)

Of 12.9% in operating revenues available in this fiscal year, 6.3% go to defense and 3.4% to interest payments - now the second largest and fastest growing item.

That leaves 3.2% of GNP for all the other activities of the federal government, from space shuttles to subway cars. All that's there is 3.2%.

The deficits will not go away. We face a protracted fiscal crisis for the next two or three presidencies, possibly until the next century. We have sold out this generation of children and have not even begun to think of the next. The only amends we can make is to begin to think.

In addition to the strategic coup which disabled us, we face an equally perplexing long range economic decline. The great growth of productivity achieved by the postwar United States has simply ceased. In the 1950s, out average productivity growth each year for the whole decade was 4.0%. Last year it was 0.1% - 1/40 of the '50s performance. As a result, real hourly wages in the United States today are what they were in 1968. Median family income today is what it was in 1970. There has not been such a long period of economic stagnation - from the point of view of individuals and families - in the past three centuries.

This economic decline argues both for an active social policy and militates against one. It militates against a social policy in two senses: For one, there is no money in the federal budget. Just as important, the social space of an economically booming decade like that of John F. Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's is just not here in the flat 1980s.

The one sure thing we must do is learn to use our heads again. By all means, let us go on about self-reliance, gumption, go-gettingness. Nothing is the matter with any of those. But if that is all there is to be of social policy, no one needs Democrats. And, if that is all the social policy there is to be, the Democrats shall have deserved their eclipse.

Charles S. Robb is the former Governor of Virginia. He is also Chairman of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
The urgent quest for social justice which inspired the Great Society was unquestionably right for its time. Forty million of our fellow citizens still lived in poverty. Millions of black Americans could not vote. They could not compete for many high-wage jobs. They could not eat in restaurants or stay in motels of their choice. They could not live in white neighborhoods or go to white schools.

The Great Society was a bold attempt to correct these injustices. It embodied the Democratic Party's principal purpose since the days of Thomas Jefferson: to assure every American the freedom and opportunity to rise to his or her full potential.

The Great Society engendered great expectations - perhaps too great. It may have overreached; it may have tried to do too much, too fast and in too centralized a way. What's now certain is that the political consensus necessary to sustain the Great Society collapsed.

As with any grand experiment, the Great Society had its failures. But if the War on Poverty was inconclusive, the battle for civil rights and equal justice was fought arid largely won.

Blacks now constitute a powerful and sometimes decisive bloc of voters. Once barred by racism from equal competition in the economic arena, blacks now advance in every field of endeavor. Once reviled as everything from a communist to an Uncle Tom, Martin Luther King Jr. is now honored as a national hero.

We've also seen the growth of a stable and prosperous middle-class. The number of blacks in college jumped from 7 percent in 1964 to 19 percent in 1984. The number of blacks in white collar jobs soared from 19 percent in 1965 to 40 percent in 1985. And the number of blacks who owned their homes went from 38 percent in 1960 to 45 percent in 1983.

Today, America faces a new social dilemma as repugnant and intolerable as the social conditions of the '60s were to most Americans. It is the rise of a dependent, demoralized and self-perpetuating underclass in our cities - several million Americans who are drifting farther and farther from the economic and social mainstream of our nation.

For the first time in our history, the bottom segment of our society has become immobile. In our city centers, millions of people, mostly black, are trapped in a tragic cycle of deprivation, disorder and dependency. They are headed toward permanent status as wards of the state, without jobs or hope or any meaningful sense of membership in American society.

We need to draw careful distinctions between the underclass and the poor generally. The vast majority of America's poor, white and black, move in and out of the welfare system, always hoping to work their way out of poverty. The underclass represents only a small fraction of the poor, but it generates social turmoil and absorbs public resources far out of proportion to its size.

As a nation, we've got to come to grips with some uncomfortable truths. And we've got to end the conspiracy of silence that has inhibited frank public discussion of the new obstacles to black progress.

Drastically scaling back or dismantling public welfare programs is really no solution at all. Laissez-faire may be good economic policy but it's terrible social policy. Yet we can't afford to perpetuate or simply expand a welfare system which clearly isn't working well enough and which, in fact, seems to be subsidizing the spread of self-destructive behavior in our poor communities.

While racial discrimination has by no means vanished from our society, it's time to shift the primary focus from racism - the traditional enemy without - to self-defeating patterns of behavior the new enemy within. It's time to do what a number of black leaders have started to do: focus on the causes of, and possible remedies to the epidemic of teenage pregnancy in poor communities, the disintegration of families, rising dropout rates, widespread illiteracy, appalling rates of crime, violence and imprisonment.

Today, this nation needs to undertake a fundamental restructuring of our public welfare system. The issue is not just cost. In fact, as an acknowledged fiscal conservative, I'd be willing to spend as much or even more than we do today if I could be confident that the money would go into a system that really works.

We need a whole new approach to social policy. We need a social policy that fosters upward mobility, not one that freezes people in dependence and despair. We need a social policy that rewards self-discipline and hard work, not one that penalizes individual initiative.

We need a social policy that encourages families to stay together, not one that pulls them apart.

We need a social policy that instills basic values, not one that simply yields to the laws of the street.

Above all, we need a social policy designed to restore America's poor and dispossessed to full citizenship - to both the benefits and the obligations that citizenship entails.

To make the transition to the information age, our country needs a highly educated, versatile and adaptable workforce. But as we attempt to build the world's most advanced workforce, we can't afford to leave anyone behind. For if the skills gap grows any wider than it already is today, there's a real danger that the poor will never be able to catch up.

This point is critically important because I believe that the breakup of the black family is closely related to the inability to cope with economic change.

In 1948, 87 percent of black men were working - a higher percentage than white men. But since then, black male employment has been steadily dropping while white employment has remained roughly the same. By 1982, only 55 percent of black men were working.

This dramatic change has many causes, but none is more significant than the failure of the poor and unskilled to keep pace with economic change.

After World War I, many blacks migrated from the rural South to the emerging industrial centers of the North where unskilled and semiskilled labor was in demand. But after the Second World War, as jobs on the farm began to disappear and industry began to demand more highly skilled labor, black men, suffering from discrimination and the consequences of separate but unequal education, quickly fell behind.

In a society that links male self-esteem to the ability to earn a living, the consequences of black male unemployment on the family have been catastrophic.

- One of every two black youngsters lives in poverty.
- One of every two grows up without a father.
- One of every two teenagers is out of work.
- One of every four births is to a teenager.
- One in every 21 young black men is murdered.
Today we face a truly astonishing fact: murder is the leading cause of death for young black men. And if the trend toward out-of-wedlock births continues, bythe turn of the century nearly 70 percent of all black families will be headed by single women.

By doing nothing in the face of these realities, the federal government has created a de facto social policy of welfare dependency for women and prison for men. We've all heard about the growth of welfare dependency, but it's also true that the number of inmates in federal and state prisons has increased by 40 percent since 1980.

A policy that relies primarily on prisons to handle social problems is costly, callous and ultimately futile. Instead, we need to launch a new, targeted offensive on joblessness, dependency and poverty

First, the best social policy of all is economic growth. This isn't the time to get caught up in redistributional politics. What we need is a growing pie.

The single biggest obstacle to both sustained economic growth and social progress today is the federal budget deficit. The political support for new social initiatives is not likely to materialize in the shadow of giant deficits.

Second, we've got to improve the quality of education available to the poor. To equip young people for jobs in a fast-changing workforce, our public schools need to set even higher standards and improve remedial and vocational education. But schools need to do more than teach basic skills; they also need to inculcate basic values - the habits of hard work and self-reliance that people need to succeed in life.

They need to instill discipline, but we can hardly expect youngsters to learn discipline in schools where disorder and contempt for authority prevail. Before we do anything, we need to make our inner city schools safe, so that good teachers are not afraid to teach and students are not afraid to learn.

We also need targeted intervention to keep kids from dropping out of school. In Texas, for example, the Cities in Schools program puts tutors and counselors in targeted schools. Attendance has improved by 25 percent, and 80 percent of those helped finish school.

In addition, we need to foster public-private cooperation to bridge the skills gap between what teenagers learn in school and what they need to succeed on the job. A model here is the Boston Compact, in which businesses agree to hire youngsters in return for agreements by schools to improve the quality of education.

Third, we need to place much more emphasis on early intervention to prevent as many poor children as possible from becoming ensnared in a cycle of chronic dependency. In my judgment, early childhood education is essential if children from disadvantaged homes are to receive the mental stimulation and motivation they need to have a chance in life.

For example, I don't think it would be unreasonable to ask that young mothers, as a condition of receiving welfare, choose between allowing visiting teachers to come to their homes periodically to teach learning games and encourage language development, or attending child-parent centers where teachers can work with their children and teach them basic child-rearing skills. Another idea is to make Head Start or quality day care centers available to children between the ages of two and three.

Fourth, we need to change the financial incentives in the current welfare system to encourage families to stay together and welfare recipients to take jobs.

The system should reward and grant special status to two-parent families, not bar them from public assistance as is now the case in nearly half of the states.

And welfare recipients who do find full or part-time work should be rewarded by allowing them to keep a percentage of their benefits for a transition period to face the loss of other forms of public assistance they lose when they become employed.

Fifth, we need to reward with jobs those youngsters who demonstrate perseverance, who work hard and who stay in school and out of trouble. That means enlisting private employers in community-based efforts to ensure that there are jobs at the end of the line for young people who've earned them.

Sixth, we need to restore the balance between the entitlements and the obligations of citizenship.

Just as society has a moral obligation to help its most needy citizens, those citizens who benefit from public assistance have an obligation to society. Yet, in the last decade and a half, the connection between welfare benefits and recipient responsibility has been obscured as eligibility rules have been relaxed and work requirements have gone unenforced, Regrettably, the Great Society's original emphasis on self-help and community action has given way to a large and paternalistic welfare bureaucracy which sees recipients as helpless victims rather than as citizens in need of help.

In sum, we've got to try to break the cycle before it devours another generation of our young people. The challenge is monumental; it requires a national response.

The impetus for action needs to arise - and is arising - in the most blighted neighborhoods in America. Today black leaders are attempting to bring about the moral renovation that their communities so desperately need.

But while community leaders can offer positive role models and a message of hope, only the business community can reward that hope with jobs that bolster self-esteem and promote self-sufficiency.

Government has a critical role to play and Democrats should lead the way in defining it. We can't let our allegiance to the past - even to a past we built - prevent us from making bold departures today.

Glen C. Loury is a Professor of Political Economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
The nation is gearing up for a reassessment of social welfare policy, but there is not yet consensus on the principles which should guide reform.

There are clear differences in the approach to welfare reform between liberals and conservatives. Charles Murray, in Losing Ground, has set the tone of conservative commentary. He argues that government programs of assistance to the poor have created a system of incentives which encourage people to behave in ways that exacerbate their poverty.

Murray's solution is to drastically reduce the levels of federally financed assistance available to any of the poor, leaving such people with no choice other than to rely on work or private charity. His hopes are that such a dramatic change in financial incentives will produce pronounced improvements in the behavior of those in risk of becoming dependent. Women will think twice before bearing a child which they are not able to support, and men will have a greater interest/in finding and keeping such low wage work as available in the private job market.

Senator Moynihan, on the other hand, in his recent book, Family and Nation, offered us what might be called a liberal, critique of Murray's vision. He too recognizes the need for reform. A portion of his argument is the phenomenon referred to as the feminization of poverty - the poor increasingly consist of young women and their children living in households from which the father is absent. The growth of Social Security and Medicare benefits has lifted the elderly out of poverty while the erosion of the real value of AFDC (Aid for Dependent Children) benefits by inflation has helped to increase the number of children living below the poverty line.

Senator Moynihan urges that we must have the political will to do for our children what we have already done for the elderly - to provide benefits sufficient for more of them to live in non-poverty households. He does not believe, as Murray does, that such an effort to increase and standardize states' benefit levels will induce behavior in recipients which increases long-term dependency.

Neither of these positions is entirely satisfactory as a framework to guide a search for improved welfare policy, but both have merit.

We should begin with the understanding that most persons on the AFDC rolls today will require assistance for a relatively short period of time - one or two years. For such households experiencing a transitory period of need, the risks that more generous assistance will provide incentives to become trapped in long-term dependency are minimal. Yet, among current recipients, there is a minority, 10% to 15%, who are long-term dependents, staying on the rolls an average of IS years or more. This population of more or less permanently poor persons constitutes a substantial portion of what are popularly called the underclass.

For this population, the link between public assistance and their own behavior should be of much greater concern to us. There is, to put matters directly, an identifiable culture of poverty shaping the attitudes, values, aspirations and violent behaviors of the population trapped in long-term poverty.

What is clear from recent journalistic accounts, as well as from more scholarly, epigraphic and sociological literature, is that the behaviors and values of people living in these communities constitute an important cause of their long-term dependency. I'm referring to lack of parenting, participation in criminal activities, the use of prime drugs and detachment from the labor force. Ending that dependency, therefore, requires that there be some change in underlying behavior.

Two decades ago, it was fashionable among liberals and Democrats to say that to hold such persons accountable for their poverty was to blame the victim. That was because this underclass is disproportionately black. They were therefore clearly casualties of America's racism, past and present and they could not be held accountable for their plight.

This view of the problem is not common today. Racial discrimination has declined as a fact of American life. Poor, non-white immigrants have come to the country in large numbers in the past two decades. Many blacks have themselves moved out of the ghettos and into the middle class. It's simply no longer plausible to hold that limits on opportunity alone account for the pathological conditions of social life in ghetto communities.

But neither is it convincing to argue that the financial incentives of the current welfare system have produced this underclass. What can be said is that our current system of public provision has done little or nothing to address the underlying behavioral basis of long-term dependency, that we have underwritten a way of life which can lead to dependence for those trapped in places like the New York City ghettos.

Systematic research has failed to show a direct link between the levels of cash assistance in a given state and the incidence of teenage pregnancy in that state. It does not appear that young women have children that they cannot support to cash in on benefits. Some of these benefits are insufficient to raise the status of the recipient to even the level of the poverty line. What is clear is that the current system makes it possible for persons to have children without in any way discouraging that inclination.

A new approach to the problem of long-term dependency must begin with the explicit objective of altering behavior among the poor which could lead to their long-term dependency. Undertaking such an approach requires a frank acknowledgment of the pathological character of the behavior of many in the underclass. We are much further along in this process than we were five or ten years ago. The importance of "obligation" as a counterpart to the entitlement elements in social policy is now accepted.

Workfare, of course, is the key concept. Requiring recipients to participate in meaningful work programs is a central contribution to addressing the behavioral basis of the underclass problem. But it is the idea behind the specific program that requires emphasis - by requiring something of recipients as well as providing assistance, we underscore personal responsibility.

The imposition of such programs, however, cannot be a device to simply reduce the amount of public expenditures involved. In fact, they require provision for other services such as day care and job training.

Beyond requiring an affixed obligation along with the entitlements of public assistance, it is hard to know exactly what else the public sector can do to meaningfully address underlying behavioral problems. The ability of public action to change the underlying values and preferences of the poor, as distinct from changing the rewards associated with an individual's choices, has limits. It is extremely difficult for state and county welfare officials to win the hearts and minds of their clients and thus change substantively their clients' behavior modes.

On the other hand we are increasingly hearing about private and voluntary community based efforts which produce changes in the behavior of the poor. This suggests the possibility of complimentary efforts in which the public role and the private role in behavior modification are divided.

An historical example from the 1960s is the Black Muslim Movement. It flourished in many major American cities among inner city blacks, and provided a graphic illustration of the possibilities of transforming individuals. I would also include the Home for Unwed Mothers in Lynchburg, Virginia, that's run by Reverend Falwell's church. There have been virtually no second unwed pregnancies among residents despite the fact that, nationally, close to half of teen unwed mothers have a second child out of wedlock.

These are mediating structures - social organizations that are smaller than government yet larger than the individual family - which operate through voluntary associations of individuals, and in so doing seem better able than government to be effective at altering the basic behavioral values of their members.

It shouldn't be surprising that churches and residential associations with civic roots are potentially more effective in changing the underlying values and behaviors of their individual members than are the bureaucratic alternatives. Mutually concerned persons who trust one -another enough to be able to exchange criticism, constructively establish codes of personal conduct and enforce social sanctions against what is judged as undesirable behavior, can create and enforce communal norms that are beyond the capacity of the State to effectively promulgate.

Within voluntary associations powerful mechanisms of persuasion are available. The threat of social ostracism, of the withdrawal from the individual of the approval and respect by those whose high regard is avidly sought, can encourage individuals to conform to the expectations and opinions of significant others in ways that threatened incarceration, for example, cannot.

In conclusion, some kind of cooperative endeavor in which public institutions play a significant role in providing assistance to the indigent in a way that compliments private efforts will have the best chance to transform the behavior of those in most serious long-term dependency.

William S. Woodside is the Chairman of the American Can Company and Chair of the Education Committee of the New York City Partnership.
I am concerned that our current preoccupation with the glitter of private sector involvement may lead us to overlook or underestimate some serious shortcomings in the partnership concept. Specifically, even in their aggregate, successful partnerships between government and the private sector are an inadequate vehicle for a broad scale reduction in the social problems facing this nation

Partnerships can help find innovative solutions to some of these problems. They can help us set a national agenda. They can provide a new level of activity and involvement. But, they cannot eliminate or even substantially reduce the problem areas on which they are focused - not even if we have 50 very active business roundtable groups and 2,000 join A School Programs.

Poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment and the problems of our inner city public schools both dwarf and transcend private sector resources. We're not going to make headway in these areas until we renew the capability of government to help America's disadvantaged. That means making clear to the American public that government is the one social institution in this country that is best able to help the poor in a broad range of areas.

And rhetoric about self-sufficiency notwithstanding, the largest group of people on public assistance programs such as AFDC and food stamps are children. Do we want them to find steady employment? Or do we want Women, Infants & Children programs, Head Start, Title I Education Aid and a Job Corps that will give youngsters a better chance to escape poverty's grip when they grow up?

Finally, it's essential for us to make a real and unequivocal commitment to our children. Of all the data we have collected about poverty, the most disturbing is that nearly one of every four children under the age of six lives in poverty. In other words, one of every four children grows up deprived during the most critical development time in their lives. This is a national disgrace.

There are many people in this country who say we can take better care of America's poor children just as soon as we take care of the federal deficit. I'm a businessman and was trained as an economist. I know the dangers of deficit spending. I also know that this country cannot afford to put off renewing its commitment to poor children until we put out macro-economic house in order. The children of poverty didn't create the deficit. It' a tragic mistake to ask them to pay for it.

For the past few years, we have seen a poverty rate that has remained at historically high level despite economic recovery. If this continues, we run the risk of becoming a society with a permanent and growing underclass, a society in which increasing numbers of people - including many of our young - have no role. They will feel no identity or connection. In that society it will be increasingly difficult for democratic institutions and processes to function effectively, if at all.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Professor of Law at Georgetown University. She was Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Carter Administration.
The family is the foundation for a new social agenda. The family idea is so powerful that, were we to empower families, much of the debate about social programs would be unnecessary.

The family is the simplest of ideas. Children are formed from an irresistible sexual union. Children are then rendered helpless for a long period of infancy that gives the parents a long time in which to acculturate, train and educate these children. Those who emerge at the end of childhood are adults, self-sufficient and capable of caring for themselves and raising their own children. Very simple. It is the notion of the perpetual human cycle, the cycle of the millennia.

The family system is so central and efficacious that every civilization and every society has been built around it. The institution and the ceremony of marriage arose to assure the permanency of the arrangement. The family system has not only preserved the human species, but has been largely responsible for our ability to cope as individuals, and to thus make contributions that advance the society at large. The family institution is so efficient that even without help from the outside, it is able to do almost everything it takes for individual members to survive and prosper.

We are, however, in a period when the family as an institution has undergone negative structural change in every part of the society.

For mainstream Americans, the odds in favor of divorce equal those in favor of stable marriage.

For the poor, especially the black poor, the odds against marriage at any time are high.

In both cases, the mainstream case and the poor black case, the victims are children - the next generation and then the next, creating a successive weakening of our society from within.

I point, not only to the black case or to the poor case, but also to the too often unnoted and utterly unattended danger to white children in a society that is bereft of family support systems. I also cite the white and mainstream case because of our habit of ignoring perfectly obvious problems until they become acute. With white families facing a 50% divorce rate, with half of the children of those divorces under 14 years of age, with growing numbers of latch key children and little child care that is both affordable and excellent, there are indeed troubles we have not yet begun to talk about, much less face.

If the family is a simple idea when it works, it is the most complicated of ideas when it doesn't. Once we break a tradition, it is extraordinarily difficult to recreate it because the natural conditions that led to its slow evolution and formation have been altered. We therefore must recreate it by artificial means. Because we have never had to do this with the family, frankly, we do not know how to do it. The political debate should revolve around reinforcing the family as the foundation for a new social agenda.

The Reagan Administration's cosmetic profamily rhetoric combined with its profoundly anti-family policies have been a cover for the destruction of social programs as a generic government function. This is ironic since, in an advanced and democratic society, the family is not only a magnificent private institution but an agent of the society. What the family does not do, society will be called upon to do at much greater cost with necessary awkwardness and impersonalization.

Thus, public policies that serve and reinforce family interests are incentives to efficiency and quality of performance because the kindred bond powerfully motivates the family to care for its members. To give two examples of what families do at no cost and what society does at very great cost: first, nurturing children - the loving and socializing function which parents enjoy, but institutions do very poorly and expensively; and second, a more concrete one, using the language well. This takes no effort whatsoever on the part of the family. All it takes is for children literally to be in the same household with people who speak correctly. The adults need do nothing except engage in their own daily conversation and they empower children with language, and thus the ability to think.

What happens when the natural actors, for whatever reason, do not perform the family mission? In the case of white families, we may not find out in any definite way for another generation. For black families, the terrifying evidence is in. All of the traditional family members in the black family are indeed troubled.

First, the youngest children. Seventy-five percent of black children from birth to five years of age live in poverty. When these foundation years are lost or badly injured, many are left without life's opportunities, and it sometimes takes superhuman effort to overcome injuries in those years.

Moving from infancy to childhood, 50% of black children live in poverty, with all the attending problems.

Moving from childhood to teens and young people, close to half of those teens are unemployed. In the late 1970s, two out of three young black women having a first child were single. Over half of 17-year-old black males are either behind in school or have dropped out of it. As recently as 1977, black and white high school graduates were equally likely to go to college. By 1982, white high school graduates were 45% more likely to go to college than were blacks. That translates into a lost generation with neither work experience to build on nor education.

Moving from teens and young adults to adults, we have double digit unemployment rates for 15 years among black adults. For black males, 55% are outside of the work force.

These are all the family members - children, teens, young adults, adults, and family distress has been a cause, and often the major contributing cause, to the problem of the individuals in this family configuration.

Blacks themselves must attend to the cultural and behavioral and value problems, and it is urgent for them to do so. I do, however, want to separate myself from cultural determinists who speak of behavior as if behavior itself was without roots and causes. I also want to separate myself from the economic determinists whose understanding of the ghetto is so superficial that they think lowering the minimum wage for teenagers will produce a run by young people with disorganized lives to the nearest Burger King. It is clear that both cultural and economic forces are potent causes for the destruction of the black family.

In the American experience, various immigrant groups have seen up close what a powerful expanding economy can do to erase underclass status and underclass behavior. The Irish threw garbage out of the windows in the 1850s, but today they are indistinguishable from WASPS.

Temperance societies and churches and neighborhood houses did not transform the lives of the ethnic poor; improved chances for better and better jobs with each succeeding generation did. Had blacks been afforded those opportunities, then there would be no problem of a black underclass Sheer economics and jobs did it for peasants and the lowest of the European working class. If white immigrants had been forced to fester in their own joblessness and hopelessness for generations, the first American underclass would have been the descendants of white European immigrants, not of black slaves and sharecroppers.

What then are the remedies? A nongovernmental, intracommunity black initiative is the main, indispensable ingredient. Micro efforts by the black community will be necessary, from rein. forcement of the special and traditional values of the vicarage to the creation of entry points for the black middle-class to reach and finally help their brothers and sisters in the ghetto.

But, macro efforts are equally indispensable. Only the government can break the hold of structural unemployment which has permanently laid off black men or denied first time jobs to their sons. We have created over 30 million jobs since 1950, but only a million of them are in manufacturing and most of those are far removed from the central city.

Only government - not the black community - can create an economy of mainstream, high paying jobs, the kind that made this a middle-class society for the majority of white Americans. Only government can do something about the fact that in 27 states families are forced to break up because no form of welfare is available for two parent families that are unemployed. Only government can enforce equal employment laws and affirmative action which brought about the amazing progress in the last 15 years that led to the creation of the black middle-class.

The silly debate about affirmative action has run its course, confused the country, and should stop. Seven out of the nine current justices of this conservative Supreme Court have made it perfectly clear that they understand and support affirmative action as a matter of law. So does a great majority of the organized business community, and so does organized labor.

All of these strategies - economic policy aimed at structural unemployment, welfare policies addressed to two parent families and affirmative action - are examples of approaches that only government can pursue. All of them strengthen the family directly, or they strengthen individual family members in critical ways that will in turn strengthen their roles as family members.

Finally, government needs to face the inevitable if it is serious about addressing the problems of the new underclass. It will need to invest in this generation with a one time expenditure designed to break the cycle of social and family disorganization. This must involve concentrated attention sufficient to break the old pathology that has taken hold of the ghetto. Once the cycle is broken, government will be able to get out of the way, and then attentively let the family do what it does best.

Nicholas Lemann Responds:
Nicholas Lemann, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly, has been researching the origins of the underclass. We asked him to apply his insights in a brief comment on the foregoing exchange.
From reading this excellent exchange, a newcomer to the subject will get a somewhat skewed idea of how much consensus there is on the subject of poverty. The contributors here all believe that welfare isn't the primary cause of poverty; all believe that unemployment is probably a more important factor; and none has any tremendous problem with discussing the "culture of poverty," as long as it isn't presented as a wholly self-generating phenomenon that explains everything. At most poverty conferences (of which there is a resurgence these days), ''culture of poverty" is still a verboten phrase, and to some extent "underclass" is too. I mention this because it's important to understand what a great leap forward exchanges like this one represent, even if they seem vague on what the answers are.

All of the speakers here agree that the underclass constitutes an urgent national problem about which something has to be done. There are three categories of recommendations. First is a new macroeconomic policy, which necessarily would be federal, to reduce the unemployment base of the inner cities. Second is welfare reform - making welfare available to two-parent families everywhere, and tying welfare to work, either through "soft" incentives or "hard" requirements. Third is changing the ghetto culture. Here there is the widest disagreement. Some people, notably Glen Loury, believe that only a non-government effort within the black community can effect such a change; others have more faith in interventionist government programs like Head Start.

I want to sound a note of skepticism about several of these policies - not about whether they're a good idea, but about whether they'll truly affect the underclass. Bringing the jobs back to the inner cities will be extremely difficult, in part because it's swimming against the economic tide and in part because underclass neighborhoods in particular have crime rates so high as to scare away most prospective employers. I think lowering the unemployment rate and then bringing the people to the jobs might work better. Also it would have the effect of a breaking away, at least during work hours, from the ghetto culture. Making welfare available to two-parent families is the right thing to do, but in the states where it's available already there hasn't been a dramatic family-healing effect. We shouldn't expect too much of that change. My worry about Loury's solution is that today, as opposed to twenty years ago, the ghettos are segregated by class as well as race. There has been a mass migration out of them by the people who could get out. I wonder how the ethos of the underclass is going to be changed by a middle-class with which the underclass has very little natural contact any more.

As several of the contributors mentioned, the next important question is what the political system will be willing to let the government do. Everyone who doesn't believe that cutbacks are the answer has to worry about the effect of the Reagan deficits on the government's ability to address this problem. Assuming that the money can be found, it will be interesting to see what justifiction for spending it will have the most sway with the public. Specifically, is (mostly white) America willing to do something for black people? Or will talking in terms of helping a nonracially-defined group of the "economically displaced" be more likely to succeed? How you answer that depends on your reading of the American character. I think we're more committed to ending racial than economic injustice.

My own views on this subject were formed as I researched the origins of the underclass for the Atlantic Monthly and for a book I'm preparing.

There's no mystery to why so many people left the ghettos. They wanted to feel safe on the streets, to send their children to better schools, and to live in more pleasant surroundings; in particular, riots drove many people away. Probably everyone who could leave did. Many businesses and churches (except for tiny "storefront" churches, which often are unaffiliated with any organized religion) left with them. What was unusual about the migration of the black working population out of the ghettos, compared with that of other immigrant groups, is that it was for many years delayed and then suddenly made possible by race-specific government policies. That's why it happened so fast. One reason that the numbers for unemployment and poverty and female-headed families in the ghettos have gone up so much is that nearly everyone who was employed and married moved away (also, the fertility rate of black married women has dropped substantially, which is a sign of assimilation into the middle-class). Very quickly, around 1970, the ghettos went from being exclusively black to being exclusively black lower-class, and there was no countervailing force to the venerable, but always carefully contained, disorganized side of the ghetto culture. No wonder it flourished in the seventies. The ''losing ground" phenomenon, in which black ghettos paradoxically became worse during the time of the War on Poverty, can be explained partly by the abrupt disappearance of all traces of bourgeois life in the ghettos and the complete social breakdown that resulted.

What happened in Chicago is an especially dramatic version of what happened all over the country: just as the number of new, poor, migrant blacks in the cities reached its all-time peak, the country decided to mount a real attack on segregation in housing and employment, and otherwise to help those blacks capable of moving closer to the mainstream of American society to do so. The result is evident in the census data; there has been another major migration of blacks over the past twenty years, out of the ghettos. Even more pronounced than the social and economic deterioration of the ghettos between 1970 and 1980 is the depopulation. North Lawndale was already losing population in the late sixties, and in the seventies more than half its black population moved away. In the same decade the area around Forty-seventh and South Parkway, the old vibrant heart of the South Side gheto, lost 38 percent of its black population. The Robert Taylor Homes, whose extremely low rents and solid construction for years attracted long waiting lists, are now 20 percent vacant. All the ghetto schools, the overcrowding of which in the sixties was supposed to be a major cause of low achievement levels, have lost enrollment. This isn't happening just in Chicago. The South Bronx lost 37 percent of its population between 1970 and 1980. More than 100,000 black Chicagoans moved to the suburbs in the seventies; 224,000 blacks moved from Washington, D.C., to its suburbs, 124,000 from Atlanta to its suburbs. These are unusually high numbers for neighborhood population loss and the comparable numbers today would be even higher.

Can the ghettos be made to function as real communities again?

The evidence of black success so far, however, seems to indicate that the best hope for people in the ghettos lies in their establishing some link to the outside world.

Programs based on the Idea of making the ghettos bloom again as communities - in other words, creating a new, healthy, indigenous culture there - should be regarded with extreme skepticism. Enterprise zones would certainly do no harm, but it is hard to believe that even with tax relief employers would want to locate where crime rates are so high. Turning housing projects over to their residents might foster price, but it would also lead to physical deterioration unless there were heavy subsidies - in the Robert Taylor Homes the tenants' rent doesn't even cover the heating bill. Several black leaders, including at one extreme Louis Farrakhan, favor some form of black economic nationalism, in which people in the ghetto would trade only with black firms, in the supposed manner of other immigrant groups. Even if such a nation came into being, it would be a pathetically poor one because the black middle-class wouldn't Join it - it is already too reliant on the national economy. Community development is the most appealing idea of all. Everybody knows a story of a great teacher or organizer who made ghetto kids blossom through pure love and encouragement. The trouble is that such people are one in a million and they cannot be legislated into existence. The programs in the ghetto that work best on a mass scale - most notably Project Head Start, the one poverty program widely acclaimed as a success, which starts giving special instruction to children at a very early age - represent not the ghetto's taking care of its own but an intervention by the mainstream culture.

The best solution for the ghettos would be one that attacks their cultural as well as their economic problems, and that takes place away from the ghettos. One such idea would be to bring back the Work Projects Administration. The original WPA was a big success in the ghettos. In 1940 in Chicago, 19 percent of the black male labor force was working for the WPA, and this seems to have helped prevent an unmanageable underclass from developing at a time of catastrophic unemployment; the WPA did function as a conduit into real jobs. In Black Metropolis Drake and Cayton wrote, "During the Depression years an increasingly large number of Negroes were absorbed into the federal and state Civil Service... (M)any of these received their first contact with white-collar work on various WPA projects." The wartime boom seems effortlessly to have absorbed the WPA workers, as well as many people who were on welfare.

A new federal program like the WPA would create jobs where workfare programs only require people to find them. It could pay workers less than the minimum wage so that private employment would always be more appealing. The work it would do would be outside the ghettos, like repairing highways and operating word processors; this would require, however, overcoming the union opposition that has kept most government jobs programs confined to make-work within the ghetto. Some people now on welfare would be required to join the program or get a job - for instance, single people and parents whose children are old enough to get home from school and be on their own for a couple of hours. Welfare benefits would have to be adjusted nationally to make the incentives come out right, but that probably should be done anyway.

The great advantage of such a program is that it would enter the lives of ghetto kids when they were eighteen or nineteen and would affect them at a time when most still feel more hopeful than resigned, even if some have been overwhelmed by the traumas of growing up in the ghetto. It would not have the explosive potential to rend the fabric of adult life, the way busing and the scatter-siting of housing projects have done, but it would take the people involved out of the ghetto culture, one big step closer to the national mainstream.

Remarks by Moynihan, Loury, Woodside and Norton are adapted from statements made at the Democratic
Leadership Council's conference, "On Bringing the Poor into the Economic Mainstream," New York, June 23, 1986. Robb's remarks are adapted from a speech given at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Conference, Hofstra
University, April 12, 1986. Portions of Lemann's remarks appeared in "The Origins of the Underclass," Atlantic Monthly, June & July, 1986.

back to index