The Bottom Line Says Social Programs Pay Off


November 22, 1990|By Garland L. Thompson

IT IS FASHIONABLE these days to talk of ideological truths and fiscal realities, and to dismiss as a sham the 1960s' War on Poverty. Edward Koch, then mayor of New York, voiced the sentiments of many Americans when he told a 1989 European and North American Conference on Urban Safety and Crime Prevention that deprivation, poverty, drugs and crime were unrelated. Tough law and order, more prisons and enhanced border drug interdiction were the ticket.

That's easy to say, but it has proved impossible to make that strategy work. Europeans have seized on an idea Americans have swept off the agenda: eradicate crime at its source. Develop social programs -- what a buzzword -- to address human needs.

Until recently, few in this country have looked comprehensively at the programs that try to meet those needs. The 10th-anniversary report by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, ''Youth Investment and Community Reconstruction: Street Lessons on Drugs and Crime for the Nineties,'' arrives just in time.

What it says is backed up by concrete examples, intensive evaluation of programs and demonstrable improvements in the quality of life in affected communities. What it says is that when they reach beyond the immediate problems of crime and drug abuse to grapple the many-headed crisis menacing disadvantaged youth -- family disintegration, low self-esteem, under-education and under-employment, powerlessness and rootlessness -- community-based programs work.

It begins with an interesting observation: since the early 1980s when social programs were being ''de-funded'' by congressional Reaganauts, spending for criminal justice increased four times as rapidly as for education and twice as rapidly as for health. The number of adults behind bars doubled. The United States had the highest imprisonment rates in the civilized world, surpassed only by the Soviet Union and South Africa.

That didn't correct our crime problem, but those who wanted to throw money at it kept on tossing.

The Eisenhower Foundation, pushing into areas where George Bush's ''thousand points of light'' shine faintly if at all, re-examined the roots of urban chaos. What it found, scattered across the country, was programs whose organizers stuck it out while everyone else was giving up. There were patterns in the hard lessons learned.

Note the winners. President Bush, six years after the famous Ypsilanti, Mich., study demonstrated the value of Head Start, has agreed that it needs new money. The Committee for Economic Development found in 1985 that for every $1 spent on such early intervention, $4.75 is saved on remedial education, welfare and crime.

The Job Corps, under assault all during the Reagan administration, is another winner. Some communities near Job Corps centers have treated enrollees like delinquents, sparking corresponding hostility in camp, but Labor Department figures say the program works. During the first year after their experience, Job Corps members were a third less likely to be arrested than youths not in the program. Every $1 spent on the Job Corps brings $1.45 in benefits back, the study says. And 75 percent of Corps graduates go on to jobs or full-time study.

Other winners were Centro Sister Isolina Ferre, in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Fairview Homes Crime Prevention Program in Charlotte, N.C., the South Bronx' Argus Community and Philadelphia's House of Umoja. Each, although different in focus and character from the others, ''empowers'' people in high-crime communities by teaching them advocacy, boosting educational levels and raising job skills, improving services and opening up new opportunities for youth. Argus and House of Umoja offer residential as well as non-residential programs for youths deemed ''at risk,'' and all strive to build ''extended family'' networks among neighborhood residents.

Their success, despite the odds, has been widely noted. Other cities are copying their models. The foundation proposes a $10-billion-a-year, 10-year federal initiative for such programs, funded from ''peace dividends'' through a new Youth Investment Corporation.'' If that sounds expensive, remember that it costs $22,000 a year to keep a person in federal prison -- $30,000 in New York's prisons -- but only $16,000 to support a House of Umoja or Argus resident, $13,000 for a Job Corps program, $2,000 for an Argus non-resident program.

You can't beat bargains like that. Especially when the alternative is a diminished national ability to deal with the challenges facing us in a new, less warlike but vastly more competitive world. Time we shifted our investment strategy.

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