The Magic of the '90s Hasn't Hit the Cities Yet

April 09, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — New York. These were supposed to be the magic 1990s, with more jobs and less crime -- at least that's what the breed of academics called demographers told us 10 or 20 years ago.

Demography is, more or less, the business of counting heads to figure out what's happening, or what will happen next. The big news for the '90s, based on the birth rates of the late 1960s and early 1970s, was going to be that there would be fewer young people around. That meant less competition for education and employment and fewer young men on the streets, which would mean fewer violent crimes.

The magic numbers were these: The fertility rate in the United States -- babies born each year per 100 persons -- dropped from 3.77 at the peak of the baby-booming 1950s to 1.8 by the late 1970s.

Thus, there would be a lucky generation, like the few of us born during the Great Depression. A smaller ''cohort'' meant it was easier to get into Harvard or to get a job in construction.

And there would be fewer criminals because violent crime has traditionally been proportional to the number of young men in a society, especially poor young men.

Those good things should begin happening again. Maybe they will, but you can't see it yet. What we see so far is a young underclass roaming American cities, untrained and unfit for work, committing more and more violent crimes.

What went wrong?

More drugs. More guns.

A decline in public education and in heavy-lifting entry-level jobs as the U.S. economy automated and internationalized.

The virtual middle-class abandonment of mixed neighborhoods

and even entire cities.

Revolutions of rising expectations.

Some young women becoming as violent as young men.

Money worship of a higher order and open contempt for anyone who didn't have enough of it.

And the United States stayed racially divided. Blacks are more likely to have less money and more children, and to commit more crime. In a country that likes to declare ''war'' on problems at home and abroad, there is a continuing and escalating war between blacks, particularly young black males, and most of the rest of society. The battles and negotiations in that war involve contradictory patterns of isolation and integration.

On the one hand, urban black neighborhoods evolved into separate countries as middle-class black Americans -- and there are three times as many of them as there were 20 years ago -- left those places for the greener and quieter pastures and streets of mainstream and Main Street America.

Police patrolled the borders of the all-black neighborhoods, trying to contain the people and crime there; the economies were separate, based on drugs and welfare and hustling; social workers learned the local language and went in as diplomats; and, some would argue, drugs were pumped in as pacifiers. The mainstream view of drugs changed when violence-inducing drugs, particularly crack cocaine, replaced sedatives such as heroin. America suddenly discovered a drug ''crisis'' and

declared war again.

But, at the same time, with new civil rights and civil liberties laws and more democratic law enforcement, young blacks were given the freedom of assembly on the streets in most of America -- and they began scaring the hell out of most Americans. There must have been real satisfaction for many young black men, whose parents and grandparents were invisible and afraid of whites, to realize that whites were now frightened of them and even noticed them in that new context of fear.

What made me think about race in my country this time was three pages of depressing statistics and observations in the current issue of The Economist, the cool British magazine that often sees America whole, sometimes seeing us as amusing provincials, sometimes as savages, always in awe of our undisciplined energy.

''When Americans talk about 'an underclass' in their cities,'' the magazine said, ''they do not simply mean the poor; they mean poor but healthy young people who cannot or will not, but anyway do not, get a job. The images are vivid: an unmarried mother who lives off welfare checks; a young man who drifts from girlfriend to girlfriend, selling drugs to get by . . . of whom some two-thirds are black.''

Among the statistics backing that up were these:

In real terms, median black family income in the Midwest has fallen by nearly a third in the past 20 years, from $24,690 to $17,400; spending on all federal welfare programs from 1965 to 1987 more than tripled (in real dollars), from $141 billion to $520 billion; the proportion of black families with total income of less than $5,000 (in real dollars) has increased from 8 percent to 12 percent during the past 20 years.

''The slums in America's great cities are shameful,'' The Economist concluded. ''They are a damning indictment of the richest country in the world.''

The hyper-realistic Economist is not in the optimism business, but it does mention in passing one bit of bottomed-out hope that might ease our racial problems and reclaim the demographic promise of the 1990s: Corporate America is concerned that there are not enough baby-busters around to do its work and is beginning to put more pressure on government to find some way to turn the underclass into a needed working class.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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