DePazzo defends ideas on moving the city poor

September 06, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

Yesterday, I asked Del. Louis L. DePazzo to explain his remarks about poor people that I consider ignorant and racist. Among other things, the Dundalk legislator had implied that members of poor families are dirty and dishonest, undesirable and the "worst of the worst."

When I spoke with him, Mr. DePazzo insisted with great vehemence that there were no racial undertones to his comments. But I think he is being disingenuous. I think his comments were calculated to play upon the fears of the predominantly white, working-class, suburban district that he represents. His constituents deserve better.

Mr. DePazzo, who is running for the Baltimore County Council, has been an outspoken critic of a federal program that would move 285 inner city families into better neighborhoods in the metropolitan area. Last week, he accused the federal government and city officials of conspiring to dump Baltimore's undesirables into the county.

"My concern about this program is much like Castro did when he opened the prisons and the mental institutions and sent us the AIDS patients," he said Thursday during a radio debate. "If I were mayor of Baltimore City, believe me, I think I would be derelict in my duty if I did not send out the worst of the worst."

Later in the broadcast, Mr. DePazzo warned that the county would be flooded with people who "needed serious counseling . . . would need to be taught to take baths and not to steal."

Such attitudes illustrate how racism cripples our attempts to fight poverty. Many of us carry stereotypical images of the deserving poor -- perceived as honest, hard-working, family-oriented and white; and the undeserving poor who are perceived as lazy, promiscuous and black.

Public policy is warped by our prejudices. For instance, a study last year by the Washington-based Center for Budget and Priorities found that whites on welfare received proportionately greater assistance than their black counterparts and thus were several times more likely to break out of the cycle of poverty. Blacks on welfare, the study found, were "ghetto-ized," locked by policy and prejudice into poverty-stricken communities.

The pilot program in question -- Moving to Opportunity -- is an attempt to break that welfare ghetto by giving struggling families a chance to move into communities with the resources to help them. Instead of the flood of the great unwashed that Mr. DePazzo apparently fears, the program represents a modest attempt to help those people who already are motivated to change their lives.

Yesterday, Mr. DePazzo contended that his words, though reported accurately, had been taken out of context and twisted by the news media. He insisted that the real issue for his constituents was that the federal government had pushed the program through without local input.

"Look," he said passionately, "we're not being cruel. We're not anti-poverty. But when you bring things in secretly, that's what breeds suspicion. When we try to speak up we're depicted as a bunch of rednecks and radicals. We resent that."

He probably has a point. Although housing officials deny being secretive, I suspect officials were afraid that open discussion of the program would provoke exactly the kind of controversy that has occurred. In the end, their lack of candor magnified the community's distrust.

"I would like to believe that people here would have supported this program if it had been sufficiently explained as a way of moving people to independence," says Jean Jung, Mr. DePazzo's opponent in the Democratic primary. Mrs. Jung is board president of the Community Assistance Network, a county-based agency that will provide counseling to the families in the Moving to Opportunity program. "I would like to think my neighbors would recognize a common American value of moving up the ladder, pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. But this controversy is based on inaccurate information, rumor and fear. It is setting back the fine image of Dundalk by 15 to 20 years."

Both she and Mr. DePazzo describe Dundalk as a community of decent, hard-working people who believe strongly in family, church and patriotism but who have been hit hard by the recent recession and are fearful about the future.

But Mrs. Jung is trying to appeal to her neighbors' decency. Mr. DePazzo feeds their fears.

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