The Cities: Cycle of Cynical Neglect

November 18, 1992

The old, sadly familiar pattern of urban unrest in this country is repeating itself. A riot or other spectacular incident suddenly focuses attention on the blight, despair and neglect of our inner cities. Politicians quickly promise action, not just to remedy the spark that touched off the disturbance but also to deal with the long-standing problems that underlay it. Commissions are named, pronouncements are issued, bills are introduced, and in time everyone forgets -- until the next time.

So it has been in the six months since the riots in south-central Los Angeles, following the acquittal of four policemen in the Rodney King beating case. In the immediate aftermath of the three days of rioting and looting, President George Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton flew to Los Angeles, promising aid. Congressional leaders talked about up to $12 billion in emergency aid for Los Angeles. Other officials pledged to deal with the economic and social cancers that are eating away at ghettoes across the nation. Public opinion nationwide strongly supported increased economic aid for cities and other measures to improve the lot of the racial minorities who populate their centers. And what happened? Not much.

Congress appropriated $1.1 billion in emergency aid, little of which got spent in inner cities. After months of political wrangling, much of it with the White House, Congress followed up with one of those legislative monstrosities that tarnishes the institution. What started out as an urban aid bill ultimately turned into a $27 billion caricature festooned with goodies for interest groups ranging from IRA investors to airline pilots to the shoe industry. Its main benefit for the cities was supposed to be enterprise zones that would provide jobs for inner city residents, but political horse-trading shifted half of them to rural areas. President Bush vetoed the bill because he saw tax increases in it. Result? Nothing done again.

Perhaps Mr. Clinton will break this cycle of cynical neglect. It won't be easy, since he sees his major task as reviving the economy and controlling the deficit. He didn't promise the cities or their racially diverse inner-city inhabitants much in return for their strong election support, either. But the social and economic conditions that breed urban unrest must be wiped out, for the good of the whole nation. Otherwise Mr. Clinton, too, will be calling out troops to extinguish another conflagration.

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