Self-help is not enough

Mark K. Shriver

September 26, 1991|By Mark K. Shriver

WHAT DO Wiley Hall, George Will and Clarence Thomas have in common? Politically, The Evening Sun columnist, the nationally syndicated conservative and the Supreme Court nominee are strange bedfellows.

But all three have written recently about poverty in the cities and the need to restore "values" if urban centers are to survive and thrive.

In a 1987 speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation, Thomas, describing his childMark K.Shriverhood, said: "School, discipline, hard work and 'right from wrong' were of the highest priority. Crime, welfare, slothfulness and alcohol were enemies. . ."

Will writes that "a good society requires good behavior for participation in its benefits . . . Producing such behavior from the passive poor requires the enforcement of values . . . Enforcement must include strict child support; codes of conduct for occupants of public housing . . . work requirements for welfare recipients because work develops responsibility and hence is integral to the culture of freedom."

And Hall writes that Baltimore, with the recent arrest of a 10-year-old for allegedly robbing an 8-year-old's yo-yo at gunpoint, now has "the most dramatic proof imaginable of the appalling impotence of our community -- a community so weak both spiritually and physically that it cannot disarm and control a 10-year-old . . . What level of nurturing, supervision and discipline are the adults in his life providing?"

The values stressed by all three are consistent and non-controversial: discipline, hard work, good behavior and responsibility. These values are not "white" or "African-American" or "Jewish" or "Catholic," nor are they liberal or conservative. They are basic values widely respected and supported by people of all persuasions.

But a critical question remains: If we believe that these particular values should be encouraged in American society, how do we accomplish this goal? How does society go about heeding Will's call to "energize the passive, dysfunctional poor to take responsibility for themselves"?

Thomas argues for self-help and emphasizes the importance of a "strong father figure." He believes that government programs that try "to capture the daily counseling, oversight, common sense and vision of my grandparents [are] engaging in sheer folly."

Will would impose "the 'politics of conduct' on, and on behalf of, the non-working poor." He wants a cadre of modern-day John Wesleys, referring to the 18th-century British preacher and founder of Methodism who rode through England calling for a return to the values of discipline and hard work.

Hall, while posing extremely insightful questions about the future of cities and the poor, has yet to follow with suggestions for reform of troubled welfare, criminal justice and other social systems.

Will self-help alone address the problem of poverty? Is a strong father figure the answer to a troubled youth? Can a band of reformers relieve the grinding daily toll drugs and crime exact on an aging city neighborhood?

I think it somewhat foolish and egotistical of Thomas -- or anyone, for that matter -- to believe he has succeeded in life solely as a result of his own efforts. Thomas benefited from affirmative action policies; was that "self-help"? Today, more than ever, no man is an island. And Will's concept of a cohort of modern-day Wesleys falls short; they would run out of gas money long before their job was completed. Will either of these approaches have truly significant impact on the 300,000 defective babies born in America each year because they are exposed to drugs in the womb?

These ideas on how to implement values are simplistic. Yes, an individual can still make a difference, but a community is not simply a collection of disjointed individuals "doing their own thing." Nor can a band of Wesleys be expected to attack urban plight. We can't force "values" on a community which is not invested in its own growth and improvement.

The approach must be on many fronts simultaneously. Self-help, modern-day Wesleyans, community groups, religious organizations and private businesses all have a role to play in energizing the poor to take responsibility for themselves, but we must realize that a thousand points of light only burn so bright. Government must play a significant role as well.

Government must fund programs that emphasize responsibility and accountability, not those that foster dependence.

Poor communities which do act on their own behalf, including those with citizen patrols, beautification projects and strong parent-teacher associations, should receive recognition and incentives for continuing their self-help efforts.

Businesses should consider their responsibilities to the neighborhoods in which they operate. Whenever possible, they should hire neighborhood people. Business leaders should look around at some of the innovative and generous voluntary efforts pioneered by some of their colleagues: mentoring and half-day-a-week volunteer assignments, to name two.

Self-help and evangelism may play well with the American image of the rugged individual and may well reap results at the ballot box, on TV or in Senate hearings, but without a broader coalition, urban centers will continue to decay. Yes, we need to value discipline and self-reliance, but we also must value helping each other.

Mark K. Shriver heads CHOICE, a delinquency prevention program in Cherry Hill that is administered by the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

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