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Inner cities cry out for politics of compassion

If the United States is to build a 21st-century community strong enough to withstand and profit from the global winds of economic change in the next decade, all of American society must be in good social and economic health.

That cannot happen unless some government priorities are shifted and funded. And in an era of anti-funding of anything social, what chance of that? There is a new Great Depression -- this time in America's inner cities. Jobless rates are three to four times the national average, according to National Urban League president Hugh B. Price in the league's annual "State of Black America" report. The report calls inner city unemployment "a catastrophe that has produced a bitter, deadly surge in crime."

According to Price, "There's nothing un-American about spending public money to help fill gaping holes in the labor market. It is what our national government has done (ever since) President Eisenhower breathed economic life into the rural south with labor-intensive construction projects."

The report outlines a two-level strategy -- thinking globally and reacting locally -- in a manner new to 21st century socioeconomic discussion. It deserves our attention because this is a key chapter in a yet to be written primer on future American economic life.

Such a primer must have chapters on expanding exports, on the consequences of remaking U.S. business in a totally global context, and on the impact of a computer/digital/Internet revolution that has a life force of its own and few outside controls, and on downsizing: downsizing not just in the corporate world and what that augurs, but, more important, downsizing of the government and what that portends.

Price writes, "Our authors paint a portrait of a society irrationally at odds with its ever more insistent need to utilize all its resources. One that permits high rates of residential segregation that traps blacks (and Latinos) in inner cities, far from jobs in the suburbs. One that in great measure ignores the obvious necessity of harnessing the positive energy of all our youth. One that has largely turned away from fashioning a comprehensive public housing sector program and that likewise stubbornly resists addressing the issue of child care.

"One in which African-Americans and Latino-Americans often rightly feel that they must protect themselves not only from the criminals but from a criminal justice system that too often treats them unjustly. And one in which African-American's lack of access to the capital that would lead to greater private home ownership and help spur a greater private-sector economic development has left them with a stake in the American economy far too small for the country's own good."

All this, Price writes, comes at a time when an expanding black middle class, a stable working class and an increase in elected black officials should be sending strong signals to Americans about what is possible.

Is it sending a strong message to Newt Gingrich, who has survived as one of the most powerful leaders in the land and a potent symbol of the country's ferment?

Gingrich is intemperate and swings wildly but he lives in Washington in a modest apartment building and walks its streets.

Although he has sulked about riding in the back of the presidential plane, he cares about what happens to the cities, not in an abstract way but because he lives in a city whose streets are not a safe walk. And, despite being a seeming liability to his own party during the recent election campaign, he's again speaker of the House in a Republican Congress whose majority is not urban but suburban. And he knows firsthand what they don't.

The plight of cities, of African-Americans, of youth, moved him to these comments when he became speaker in January 1995: "I have seldom been more shaken than I was shortly after the election when I had breakfast with two members of the Black Caucus and one of them said to me, 'Can you imagine what it's like to visit a first-grade class and realize that every fourth or fifth young boy in that class may be dead or in jail within 15 years and they're your constituents and you are helpless to change it?' I visit a lot of schools. That got through. I mean, that personalized it, that made it real, not just statistics, but real people."

Gingrich continued, "I want to commend to every member of both sides to look carefully. I would say to those Republicans who believe in total privatization, you can't believe in the Good Samaritan and explain that as long as business is making money, we can walk by a fellow American who's hurt and not do something.

"And I would say to my friends on the left who believe there's never been a government program that wasn't worth keeping, you can't look at some of the results we now have and not want to reach out to the humans and forget the bureaucracies. And if we could build that attitude on both sides of this aisle, we would be an amazingly different place. And the country would begin to be a different place."

Last month the electorate spoke and pretty much left things as they were -- a Democratic president with a Republican Congress. And a society with its ever important cities is in deep, deep trouble.

The only interesting metaphor from that election was the one about bridges. The most important one to be built now is not into the far future, but between the White House and Congress.

On the issue of inner cities, President Clinton and Gingrich will first have to find common ground and shared attitude. But Gingrich will have to deliver Congress on major aid to the cities. Much depends on it.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 1996