What is ''weed and seed''? Is this much-touted ''new'' Bushurban policy program for real?
The basic idea is straightforward enough. First, crime- and drug-infested neighborhoods get ''weeded'' through an intensive police crackdown, backed up by federal agents and prosecutors.
Then the city institutes a neighborhood-sensitive community policing program with cops walking the beat and getting to know residents.
Finally, there's supposed to be ''seeding'' through a variety of family services, job training and drug treatment programs, and ways to keep young people constructively engaged and off the streets.
President Bush is so fond of ''weed and seed'' that he's announced it three times this year -- first in his ''war on drugs'' update in January, second in his budget submission in February and lastly -- with special fanfare -- right after the Los Angeles riots.
''Weed and seed,'' born out of the administration's so-called ''war on drugs,'' began quietly last year as a pilot effort under the Justice Department in Kansas City, Trenton, Philadelphia and Omaha. This January, Bush budgeted it for $500 million. Sixteen more cities -- among them Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Seattle and Richmond -- are to be included as part of the new urban aid package.
Critics are already saying that ''weed and seed,'' whatever its attractions, is so meagerly funded that it will reach just a fraction of urban America's troubled neighborhoods, and just skim the surface in those.
Even so, the basic ''weed and seed'' concept could prove a big breakthrough in American urban policy.
It recognizes that neither law enforcement nor social services, on their own, are up to the task of turning around neighborhoods riddled with drugs, violence, poverty and joblessness. By combining the conservatives' penchant for ''law and order'' with the liberals' call for social assistance, it has the makings of a significant political ''deal.''
If America is really serious about tackling the frightening societal breakdown of the inner-city neighborhoods -- a threat not only to our national economy but to our national soul -- then inventive new consensus approaches like this are imperative.
Safe turf -- a neighborhood one can walk around without fear of flying bullets -- has to be guaranteed first. Intensive criminal investigations, quick action to get violent drug dealers and firearms offenders off the streets, and a wave of well-founded indictments (some under tougher federal law) are a first step in that direction.
Add in community-oriented policing, and residents will see that streets and parks and housing projects can be reclaimed.
The ''seeding'' of positive services is supposed to include Head Start in the target areas. In the four selected Trenton neighborhoods, each about 10 blocks square, there's a ''Safe Haven'' program where youths can go instead of hanging around the streets. Sports, swimming pools and places to do homework are offered. Some schools are kept open from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. five days a week and all day Saturday, with adult supervisors on hand.
All this is vital to re-creating healthy and supportive communities.
But is it nearly enough?
The $500 million Mr. Bush is discussing is woefully inadequate. A comprehensive national drug treatment program alone would cost more than that. Full Head Start funding for all children in real need would use as much cash several times over.
Where's the commitment here to make a telling impact on the hundreds of devastated neighborhoods in urban America today?
New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a Democrat, compares the president's ''weed and seed'' budget to ''launching Operation Desert Storm with one tank battalion and a couple of battleships, or trying to bail out the savings and loans with a White House bake sale.''
Then there's the irritating fact that Mr. Bush isn't coming up with fresh money. More than half his $500 million request comes from shifting money from existing programs. The Job Corps, community health centers, public housing modernization, compensatory education, Agriculture Department aid for nutrition for women, infants and children -- all get tapped. That means that recipients outside of the selected ''weed and seed'' neighborhoods will get less service.
A next question is whether ''weed and seed,'' as it now stands, balances the two sides fairly. Neighborhood leaders don't think so.
The record suggests that, in any showdown, this president will come down on the side of law and order over human needs. Mr. Bush has always, for example, stressed paramilitary drug wars over drug treatment. His budget still does.
Fairly balanced and recast in dramatically larger terms, ''weed and seed'' could provide real hope for ravaged neighborhoods across the nation. Because it suggests tangible results, it could kindle broad support among the American people.
But one suspects it will take a more visionary and committed president than George Bush to make all that happen.
Neal Peirce writes a syndicated column about the problems of states and cities.