Facing Up to the Urban Crisis

May 06, 1992

Even before President Bush gets to Los Angeles, he is blaming the riots there on the Great Society programs of the Sixties. Such finger-pointing won't work. Mr. Bush and Ronald Reagan before him have spent the past dozen years eviscerating these programs without putting anything in their place. Our current president not only lacks an urban policy; there is reason to doubt he knows in his own mind just what he stands for in America's troubled cities because, until the wake-up call came last week, he chose to ignore them.

This is not to say Bill Clinton and the Democrats have put forward compelling answers. Far from it. The prospective Democratic nominee was content to downplay the urban issue, with its backdrop of racial tension, because he saw it as a loser with white suburban voters. Within his own party, there is also a feeling that the formulas of the past no longer work, if they ever did, and new approaches have yet to be defined satisfactorily

Yet the Democrats have one thing going for them. Since the cities are a major part of their constituency, they can play the part of activists and doers. In the Sixties, their party was in charge. As the cities burned, they threw money at urban problems and enlarged a welfare program that today is widely seen as a source of perpetual dependency and family break-up among the very people they sought to help.

It will be interesting to see how Governor Clinton deals with this conundrum. But in the meantime, the Republicans are in charge and the nation waits to see what their president proposes to do about it.

Within the Bush administration, Housing Secretary Jack Kemp has been a lonely voice preaching concern for the black underclass while his colleagues did little more than tolerate him. Mr. Kemp's passion was never converted into money or policy for three key reasons: First, he is a once and possibly future foe of the Bush coterie in the GOP; second, his proposals were so permeated with supply-side ideology that he could never make common cause with the Democrats in Congress; third, there were widespread doubts that his emphasis on tax breaks to spur inner-city investment and on "empowerment" of the poor by promoting home ownership would really work without infusions of federal funds that were just not in the cards.

Nevertheless, it is unsettling to note that Mr. Bush once again is passing over Mr. Kemp to let other administration figures with less credibility in urban circles carry the ball. And it is dismaying to think it required the devastation of downtown Los Angeles to wake up the political Establishment in both parties to an urban crisis apparent to any citizen living in or near a large city.

While the shock waves of Los Angeles still rumble, the president and Congress should leap past deadlock to focus more attention and resources where the security of citizens is most at risk. Mr. Kemp has urged that "extraordinary things" be done. Americans should demand nothing less.

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