I SELDOM USE this space to respond to letters from readers. But reaction to a recent column suggesting that the poor - and the community generally - would fare better if low-income families from inner-city public housing are dispersed to better neighborhoods brought a small flood of mail and phone calls, the vast majority of them angry or cynical.
The fact that we're on the cusp of a presidential election might have contributed to the emotional pitch of some of the more strident comments. But what I've read and heard the past two weeks is probably timeless. I heard the same during the Reagan years, and bashing poor people and the government that assists them remains a numbingly constant theme of talk radio. The cumulative message of the letters supports the view of Ralph E. Moore Jr., vice president of the Baltimore-based Center for Poverty Solutions, who thinks few prejudices are greater than those aimed at the poor.
I offer first the comment of a man who signed his name to an e-mail but did not want it published. He offered a familiar attack on the idea of mainstreaming poor families by subsidizing their moves to stable city neighborhoods or the suburbs: They'll deal drugs in your 'hood and commit rape. He offered no specific example of the evil consequences of rental vouchers, or Section 8 - didn't even suggest that he lived near the subsidized poor - but seemed certain of the outcome.
Here's what John - oh, right, he didn't want his name used - had to say:
"Invite as many people from Section 8 housing to move in with you or, better yet, help them renovate or help finance a home next to yours. These fine people have a different schedule than you and me. Typically their jobs are somewhat out of the ordinary - working in the pharmaceutical industry at the street-corner distribution level, armed robbery, prostitution and other interesting careers. What would you do if your wife, son or daughter was raped, sodomized or murdered and home and property pillaged by your new neighbors? Would you stay in the face of utter decline and social chaos?"
It's the same rhetoric we heard when the federal government rolled out a pilot program called "Moving to Opportunity" a few years ago - that the poor are criminals, they'll destroy neighborhoods.
That attitude was echoed in the comment of a Dundalk resident last week at the final debate over the Baltimore County executive's redevelopment plans, which include the proposed demolition of the run-down Yorkway Apartments and the construction of single-family houses.
"I don't want Yorkway torn down," the Dundalkian said, "because it will bring those city people into my neighborhood."
Actually, if "those city people" were scattered around Baltimore County, instead of steered to a suburban ghetto, some good might follow. The Yorkway is a stunning example of what happens when the poor are concentrated in one area. Officials say 40 percent of those receiving federal housing subsidies in Baltimore County live there. They'll also tell you that, last year, police received 800 calls for incidents at the Yorkway. We'll never make deep cuts in the generational cycle of poverty and dysfunction if we keep creating pocket ghettos.
But some people just don't want to hear it. They're still hung up on the idea that the poor are ciphers who should receive no government help. And they argue that a kind of social resentment - not racism or classism - is at the root of their animosity.
A Baltimore County reader named Lucy Marzano - she at least had the courage to attach her name to her views - wrote: "People will feel animosity toward those who never contributed to the system, never worked, never used garbage cans, never go inside after dark, don't supervise their kids, cut grass, paint their property, get married or have children after marriage or with the same partner. They won't acclimate themselves to neighborhood norms."
So better to just keep them in the ghetto, I guess.
"They get free health insurance," Marzano continued, "food stamps, WIC (Women, Infants and Children program), free transportation, education, and housing vouchers. The city will plop these people in the middle of a neighborhood where people who work and sweat blood to do well are insulted by their presence. Why should everything be handed to them?"
People who share Marzano's views seem to have missed the dramatic welfare reform in the United States during the Clinton years - and, I dare say, they're unlikely to give Al Gore a vote next week because of it.
But, just FYI, folks:
The government's "welfare reform clock" has been ticking for nearly four years now. Starting in January 1997, poor Americans were allowed no more than five years of lifetime benefits. Since then, the welfare rolls have been cut in half, and government funds have been going into training programs that push for even greater independence from public assistance.
Wait, there's more: