Government and Cities

GEORGE F. WILL

April 15, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- The "urban crisis'' is, by now, a hardy perennial. In 1968, Glamour magazine carried an editorial titled, ''The Urban Crisis: What Can One Girl Do?'' By then the federal government was on the job, doing things.

The bill creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Sept. 9, 1965, 30 days after the beginning of, and partly in response to, the rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles.

Twenty-eight years and hundreds of billions of dollars later, welfare dependency, homelessness, substance abuse, family disintegration, the intergenerational transmission of poverty, teen-age pregnancy, illegitimacy, sexually transmitted diseases, public schools, violence and other crimes are all worse.

Last Sunday on television, Henry Cisneros, the new secretary of HUD, was asked why it is reasonable to expect Washington to do any good. He said, among much else, this:

''I think one of the things America has to address very, very squarely is whether or not we can live with continued vast spatial separations between the poorest of our populations, concentrated in public housing in central cities, and the vast differences that exist across our urban geography to the suburbs, which are essentially white.

"What we've got to do is break up the concentrations by making it possible for people to live in newly designed, thoughtfully scaled public housing, negotiated with outlying communities, because many of the problems . . . are a symptom of large concentrations of poor people with few role models and no lift.''

One's heart sinks. The '60s were bad enough the first time around.

The government, having exacerbated problems by concentrating the poor in public housing, is going to redouble its efforts with more, better, public housing, thereby conquering the spatial separations of the social classes. This is a 1960s impulse.

In the 1960s there began the explosive growth in the number of subjects considered political and suited to government attention. Perhaps this had something to do with Lyndon Johnson being the first president to have spent virtually his entire adult life in Washington.

By the end of the 1960s, Pat Moynihan was worrying about the increasing introduction into politics and government of ideas originating in the social sciences, ideas which promised to bring about social change through manipulation of society's most basic processes. This was, he said, part of a transformation of politics:

''Not long ago it could be agreed that politics was the business of who gets what, when, where, how. It is now more than that. It has become a process that also deliberately seeks to effect such outcomes as who thinks what, who acts when, who lives where, who feels how.''

But even then there was a growing sense of governmental overload. ''How one wishes,'' wrote Nathan Glazer, in the mid-1960s, ''for the open field of the New Deal, which was not littered with the carcasses of half successful and hardly successful programs, each in the hands of a hardening bureaucracy.''

Nearly 30 years on, how one wishes government would at least learn the lesson formulated by Mr. Glazer's academic collaborator, Professor Moynihan: ''The role of social science lies not in the formulation of social policy, but in the measurement of its results.''

The aroma of fresh-baked, or perhaps half-baked, social science hovers over Mr. Cisneros' idea of combating spatial separations by means of ''newly designed, thoughtfully scaled'' public housing projects.

Mr. Cisneros knows the requisite 1990s rhetoric -- ''I know we can't go back to the big bureaucracy answers of the 1960s'' -- but when explaining what should be done, he stresses better uses of Washington bureaucracies: ''. . . we think in terms of how we bring together the Department of Education on schools, and the Department of Health and Human Services on child care and welfare. We change the rules . . . ''

Better rules from Washington. Back in the 1960s, Mr. Moynihan, too, thought government should pull up its socks, square its shoulders and do better:

''Government has got into the business of promising more than it knows how to deliver; as there is little likelihood of cutting back on the promises, the success of the society turns in its ability to improve its performance.

"It is probably not a good thing to have got into this situation, but the social dynamics of an industrial society everywhere seem to FTC lead in this direction, and to do so with special vehemence in the United States.''

But is improved government performance really more likely than more judicious promising? Performance and promising are linked. Injudicious promises, like Mr. Cisneros', drive government into disappointing performances.

As this is written on April 13 the nation is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson, and waiting to see if Los Angeles will burn yet again.

For perspective, remember that Jefferson considered cities ''pestilential'' at a time when America's largest city, Philadelphia, had approximately 55,000 residents, about as many as today live in Rapid City, S.D.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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