Novel plan might prove underclass’ worth

By William Raspberry

The Washington Post

It won’t show up in the polls or in the speeches of politicians. It may not even show up in private conversations among friends.

Still, I am convinced there is a public consensus on the “underclass”—the discouraged and alienated residents who threaten to overwhelm so many inner-city neighborhoods. And that the consensus is this: It’s their own fault.

They are poor because they prefer government handouts to hard work, and they remain poor because they ignore the opportunities to better themselves.

They place too little value on education, have too many babies, refuse to form stable families, and in general behave in ways that strike terror (or at least contempt) in the hearts of those who might offer help.

Nor is it just among smug conservatives that the consensus exists. It is prevalent as well among the civil-rights activists who insist publicly that racism is at fault.

Blaming it on racism (while also arguing that racism is increasing in the land) is just another way of saying that members of the underclass are immune to the mechanisms—hard work, thrift, the inculcation of decent values—that have lifted previous generations of the black poor out of their poverty. There’s something irredeemably wrong with them; it’s their fault.

It’s a perfectly natural conclusion. Haven’t we passed laws to reduce the discrimination against them? Haven’t we provided public housing and welfare grants and food stamps for them?

aven’t we counseled them about birth control, drugs and crime, and tried our best to keep their children in school? Didn’t we (at least for a time) attempt a war on poverty. And none of it has worked.

John C. Tucker, a former Chicago lawyer now living in Lanexa, Va., thinks he knows why.

The problems that beset the underclass (as opposed to the merely poor) are so pervasive, so overwhelming, and so interrelated that attempts to deal with any one of them are bound to fail, and might even make the others worse.

He talks about it in ecological terms:

“A lake that receives too many phosphates dies. Weed growth increases, oxygen is depleted, water temperatures rise, desirable fish die off and are replaced by rough fish.

“Each condition feeds on and exacerbates the others. If we concentrate on cutting out the weeds, nothing much will change. The lake will still be dead, and the weeds will soon grow back.

“The same is true if we attack any other single element of the problem. Even cutting off the source of the phosphates may not restore the lake to health. Only by attacking all the problems at once can the ecosystem be restored.”

But when it comes to the underclass, there are too many dead lakes and too few resources to restore them all.

We have tried to deal with this dilemma by spending a little on a lot of dead lakes, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it hasn’t worked.

And what might work? “If we spend the available resources to simultaneously attack all the problems in just 10 of the lakes, several good things will happen.

“First, there will be 10 fewer dead lakes. Second, the legislature, having seen that the money it appropriated in fact accomplished its purpose, will be willing to provide additional funding.

“Third, the effort to restore the 10 lakes will inevitably teach the restorers some things that will make their efforts in the lakes that follow more successful and cost-effective.”

Tucker would choose a handful of neighborhoods whose residents include a substantial number of underclass families but which also include a nucleus of families that, while poor, are willing to work hard at improving the neighborhood.

Then he would shower the pilot neighborhoods with every conceivable service: home repair (done largely by volunteers using donated materials), training for actual jobs within easy commuting distance of the residents, plentiful child-care facilities (perhaps in local churches), business development (using the “enterprise zone” model), health and nutrition programs, Head Start, crime control (including street patrols), better schools—the works.

And all the programs would include a healthy dose of discipline: tenant councils with the authority to evict non-cooperating tenants; school committees with the power to expel children who persistently violate the rules.

There’s nothing novel about any proposal on Tucker’s list. What is novel is his notion of trying them all at once within a single geographical area.

If the approach works—if school success and employment rates increase, if crime goes down, if the general neighborhood atmosphere is transformed from despair to hope—the result would be “not only a road map for further efforts, but also the essential public consensus for proceeding on an expanded basis.”

Americans, Tucker says, “love a success story. And a success in this context might well serve to persuade the people that the effort is worth the price—morally and as a matter of national self-interest.”