Mobilizing to Attack Endemic Urban Poverty

NEAL R. PEIRCE

October 19, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

ATLANTA — Atlanta. -- What does Jimmy Carter's ''Atlanta Project'' mean for troubled inner cities across the country?

A lot, the former president believes. Mr. Carter tells me he'll soon be launching an ''America Project,'' trying to persuade metropolitan leaders across the country to begin parallel efforts to his own full-scale assault on the Atlanta region's endemic urban poverty.

Cities already asking about the project are as diverse as Philadelphia, Milwaukee, San Francisco, New York, Austin and Little Rock. Mr. Carter recently met with Washington's Federal City Council on the concept, and next month he will talk about it with Peter Ueberroth and other leaders of Los Angeles' post-riot rebuilding effort.

But is the Carter project on the right track -- for Atlanta, and prospectively all our metropolises?

There's no doubt Mr. Carter is going for an extraordinary mobilization of a region's entire resources -- government, corporations, citizen volunteers, universities, churches and especially residents of troubled neighborhoods themselves. Some may see a parallel to Washington's war on poverty or even the corporate ''guilt money'' evoked by riots of the '60s.

But Mr. Carter's enterprise benefits from a generation's accumulated knowledge -- most important is that programs invented on high and parachuted into low-income communities generally misfire. So in Atlanta, broadly based citizen task forces in each of 20 poverty-afflicted ''cluster'' areas are being given a central role. They're being asked to assess needs, look at what's being delivered by public and private agencies in each neighborhood, then pinpoint the most serious gaps and develop priority lists of what needs to be done.

''A Santa Claus or charity approach will simply not work,'' says Mr. Carter. Nor, he adds, is it enough for outsiders to fund soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food stamps and housing assistance. Rather, Mr. Carter insists, ''our goal must be to develop lasting improvements in the lives of our disadvantaged neighbors, working side by side with them as partners so they can demonstrate their ambition, dependability and competence.''

That means, of course, considerable grass-roots decision-making -- an almost revolutionary message in a town like Atlanta, where the establishment has perennially taken a paternalistic and sometimes exploitative attitude toward poor neighborhoods.

The Atlanta Project hopes to bridge the divide by getting corporations, volunteers and the experts gathered in its central staff to develop strong, personal, non-patronizing relations with neighborhood leaders.

A key problem is that many of the neighborhoods are today plagued by hopelessness and desperation, and have little sense of community. Enlisting strong-minded middle-aged female leaders in them is one thing; reaching turned-off youth, sometimes already into drugs and crime, may be much tougher. The Atlanta Project may have to launch broad (and potentially quite expensive) youth outreach, youth service and school-to-work apprenticeship programs.

And when the newly empowered cluster task forces start to feel their oats and press for dramatic changes in highly bureaucratized welfare or school systems, or demand that police get out of their squad cars and start walking their beats, one can see local political feathers flying.

What if the clusters start demanding that banks listed as Atlanta Project partners get serious with new branches, mortgages, small-business loans and programs to generate neighborhood-based wealth? Will the alliances Mr. Carter has painstakingly put together stay intact?

Other cities emulating the Atlanta Project will have all those challenges. And they won't have the rare asset of a former president to lend thrust and legitimacy. Mr. Carter's role in Atlanta is said to be a two-edged sword: It creates high visibility, but simultaneously almost unreal expectations.

Still, the Atlanta Project's concept of dramatically extended and personalized connections is very powerful.

One day in August the Crim High School cluster, which Mr. Carter advises directly, had a field day and attracted 150 exhibitors under big tents provided by the U.S. Army. A dozen federal agencies including the Small Business Administration were there; so were city council members, the Boy and Girl Scouts and organizations working on every problem from AIDS to teen-age pregnancy. For an alienated inner-city American neighborhood, that represents sensational new access.

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