The Poor, Need Uplift, Not Excuse

GEORGE F. WILL

May 30, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

NEW YORK — New York. - The crumbling of this city is stirring complaints about the ineffectual Mayor Dinkins and longings for a man on horseback, some savior riding to the rescue, wielding power like a sword. New York, like many other cities, needs a man on horseback, but not that sort. It needs John Wesley.

So says Roger Starr, veteran of this city's governmental, commercial, journalistic and academic life. Mr. Starr sees resemblances between New York now and 18th century London.

Then, industrialism was uprooting villagers, sucking them into cities where many succumbed to a new form of an old drug gin. London had 17,000 gin shops: penny a shot, two-pence for a full glass, another penny for a straw sack for drunken slumber. Wesley, who tirelessly rode Britain's rural roads and city streets, evangelized the underclass, exhorting pride and combating family disintegration by reforming behavior.

Mr. Starr's suggestion about a Wesley is shorthand for a spreading belief: Reduction of poverty requires restoration of the moral environment in which the poor live. This idea is developed in two articles in The Public Interest.

Joel Schwartz, executive editor of that quarterly, says the challenge is to energize the passive, ''dysfunctional'' poor to take responsibility for themselves to work, marry, obey the law. This emphasis departs from contemporary liberalism's agenda, which locates poverty's cause in the social environment rather than personal behavior.

Resistance to policies aimed at ''remoralizing'' the non-working poor comes primarily from elites who regard such efforts as ''blaming the victim.''

Lawrence Mead, New York University professor of politics, argues that today's underclass poverty stems less from an absence of opportunity in society than from the inability or reluctance of individuals to seize it.

In previous arguments about poverty, liberals and conservatives agreed that available employment opportunities would be seized the poor. Today the passivity of the non-working poor disproves that and discomforts liberals who are most comfortable advocating government redistributions of wealth and opportunity.

The new ''politics of conduct'' focuses on behavior characteristic of the ''culture of poverty'' rather than on removing barriers. The flood of new immigrants, especially Asians, into the job market shows that opportunity still exists. The fact that the longest boom in American history did not reduce poverty below 13 percent, Professor Mead says, supports the belief that demoralization, not impediments, explains the non-working poor.

Unlike during the Depression, today's focus is on troubled individuals and groups rather than troubled industries, agriculture or labor relations. The emphasis is on reform of behavior, and the inculcation of basic social competence, rather than manipulation of the economy. Thus the stress on youth, whose behavior is most malleable.

Even no, especially a good society requires good behavior for participation in its benefits. Professor Mead argues that producing such behavior from the passive poor requires the enforcement of values, which is anathema to some liberals.

Enforcement must include strict child support; codes of conduct for occupants of public housing; authoritarian let us not flinch from the word schools that stress discipline, even dress codes, and high expectations rather than claims of victimization; work requirements for welfare recipients because work develops responsibility and hence is integral to the culture of freedom.

Professor Mead argues that the complex psychology of today's passive, non-working poor challenges a central tenet of our political tradition, the assumption that individuals are competent to advance their own interests, given opportunity by the removal of societal barriers.

''To explain poverty and justify any policy toward it,'' he writes, ''experts need a psychological doctrine that explains how personal degradation occurs in an affluent and open society.''

We now need paternalistic policies to practice the ''politics of conduct'' on, and on behalf of, the non-working poor. They are, Professor Mead says, ''depressed but dutiful, willing to observe mainstream norms like work if only government will enforce them.''

Such policies, reinforced by a cohort of contemporary Wesleys does anyone have a better idea?

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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