A New '3 Rs' to Tackle Urban Underclass Poverty

KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

May 19, 1992|By KALMAN R. HETTLEMAN

The epitaph for the Rodney King episode is likely to be the old adage: ''After all is said and done, much is said and little is done.''

That doesn't have to be. We can overcome our national paralysis and dramatically reduce urban underclass poverty. But it won't be easy, cheap or fast. It must be vastly different from what we've tried in the past and what are now hearing.

Last week's hurry-up bipartisan accord on enterprise zones, tenant ownership of public housing and a trickle of extra dollars is an election-year cover-up for policy bankruptcy and political fright. One searches in vain even for a partisan agenda which is not, in deference to the perceived political realities of the day, piecemeal in approach and fiscally pinched.

Much more is urgently required. The first step is a fresh national mindset which thinks boldly, long-term, comprehensively and beyond conventional liberal and conservative boundaries. E.J. Dionne, in his book, ''Why Americans Hate Politics,'' writes that ''liberals and conservatives keep arguing about the same things when the country wants to move on.''

We need to move on toward a new school of thought with ''three Rs'' at its core: rights, responsibilities and resolve. Rights and responsibilities must be newly defined and reciprocal.

The rights include national guarantees of education equity and economic security. The federal government must equalize the fiscal capacity of state and local governments to provide an adequate education for every American child, regardless of race, economic class or geography. Despite decades of lawsuits and legislation, the education equity movement at the state level has failed, as Jonathan Kozol has documented.

Economic security means first and foremost the right to a job that pays adults a living wage. Also required are the other essentials of a minimally decent standard of living in the world's wealthiest nation: health care, housing and child care.

Call this a contemporary economic bill of rights, which extends the concept of constitutional civil rights to the spheres of education and economic security. The concept is hardly radical. In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed an ''economic bill of rights'' proclaiming: ''True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men.'' In today's complex society and demanding international economy, no citizen can function in the mainstream without quality education and job skills. Civil rights and economic rights are interdependent.

The new rights don't include, however, a free lunch. The right to a job carries the responsibility to work if able. Our current welfare system must be scrapped in favor of guaranteed job training and jobs.

Responsibility also embraces public safety, family obligation and civic duty.

Liberals must take a firm stand on crime. Punishment for lawbreakers, after due process, must be certain and severe. More police, judges, prosecutors and even prisons may be needed. Individual fulfillment and community well-being cannot thrive in an environment in which there is violence and drugs.

And where families do not nurture their own. Family obligation must be revitalized. The carrot lies in the economic bill of rights and related programs such as family leave, parent education and early child development. The stick must be stricter child-support enforcement and stronger safeguards for the interests of

children in child-abuse and neglect proceedings.

Pogo's familiar admonition -- ''I have seen the enemy and it is us'' -- has not been heeded. Civic duty and virtue -- our responsibility to care for each other -- must be restored. Our individual impulses and private pursuits must be channeled toward a collective common purpose.

How is all this to happen? Such an unprecedented national commitment will take enormous time, money and leadership. And of course the devil, including the cost, is lurking in the details.

How can America all of a sudden summon the third ''R,'' the resolve? Where are the will and the wallet to come from? The answers lie in the absence of alternatives.

You can't beat something -- in this case, the threat to America's future if we don't bring the underclass into the mainstream -- with nothing. The American public has come to believe that nothing makes a difference, and proposals being currently offered by the presidential candidates warrant this lack of faith.

On the other hand a bold new social compact of rights and responsibilities could make a difference. Only a concerted, all-out attack on functional illiteracy, unemployment and crime and family breakdown can penetrate the walls of inner-city separatism. The bargain of mutual rights and responsibilities (and avoidance of welfare) can unite at last low-income minorities and working-class whites behind an economically based strategy.

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