Wake-up call on urban policy

April 28, 1992

Can liberal and conservative views of crime, race and the deterioration of poor, inner-city communities over the last 20 years converge sufficiently to make possible a new policy consensus on addressing America's urban crisis? The urgency of such a consensus was dramatically underscored by a recent report which found that 42 percent of black men in the District of Columbia were somehow enmeshed in the criminal justice system on any given day in 1991 -- evidence of a social breakdown in the nation's center cities far more serious than previously acknowledged.

The study was the first of its kind to focus on a single city. And its author suggests the situation may not be too different in cities like Baltimore. A 1989 study found that, nationally, almost one in four black men between the age of 20 and 29 were in prison, on probation or on parole.

The numbers are in any case profoundly dismaying -- so much so that the first reaction of Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelley was simply to dismiss the figures as an error. Yet other district officials have accepted the accuracy of the findings -- and warn that ignoring the crisis afflicting inner-city communities is a recipe for disaster.

Yet there is little agreement among government policy makers, academic researchers or voters as to what can or should be done to ameliorate the situation. Liberals argue that poverty, structural changes in the economy and lingering institutional racism are primary factors in forcing black inner-city youth into lives of crime. Conservatives counter that inter-generational welfare dependency and social policies predicated on special entitlements have brought about an erosion of basic moral and civic values among the inner-city poor.

In an era of divided government, the ideological clash has produced a virtual paralysis of public policy -- in effect, the realization of the "benign neglect" adopted by President Nixon in the 1970s as the only feasible response to partisan gridlock. But it has proven anything but benign. If anything, the plight of the inner-city poor has grown more desperate.

Recent proposals for welfare reform suggest liberals and conservatives may at last be on the same wave length, at least in regard to family support programs. But the two sides remain far apart in their approach to public safety and criminal justice issues -- arguably the aspects of urban life that impinge most powerfully on the day-to-day lives of inner-city residents. The Washington criminal justice findings will have advanced the debate considerably if they are taken as a wake-up call to attend now to this most pressing item on the nation's urban agenda.

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