“Is President Bush hinting that the Peace Corps destroyed the moral fiber of poor people?” asked Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, responding to the claim by the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, that the failed social programs of the 1960’s were responsible for the Los Angeles riot. For Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that the Great Society caused the breakdown of family structure was “one of the most depraved statements I have ever heard from an American official.” Even Republican campaign strategists were having none of the administration line, the New York Times reported. “Next,” one of them was quoted as saying, “Marlin [Fitzwater] will blame the savings-and-loan crisis on Woodrow Wilson.”
Speaking of blame, I must take a share of it for the ridicule heaped on the administration, for in 1984 I published a book called Losing Ground which concluded that the reforms of social policy in the 60’s directly made things worse for the American poor. And, ineptly as the administration went about pressing its point, I agree with Fitzwater’s more ambitious thesis. The conditions in South-Central Los Angeles in 1992 that produced the riot are importantly a product of those reforms of a quarter-century ago.
Let me begin by briefly restating the core argument, because it has been roughly handled. Albert Shanker is right that the Peace Corps did not destroy the moral fiber of poor people; nor, for that matter, did the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or Lady Bird Johnson’s highway-beautification project. The fault does not lie in every single thing that Lyndon Johnson did, nor does it even lie primarily in “social programs.” In fact, if the discussion is limited to the elderly, the picture after the 60’s is positive.
The point, rather, is that, beginning in the early 60’s, drastically intensifying during the Johnson administration, but also persisting through the Nixon administration, American social policy toward poor and disadvantaged youths underwent a transformation in three large domains: welfare, education, and criminal justice. These domains were transformed because the assumptions behind social policy were transformed among the elites who define the received wisdom in any given era.
The new wisdom had many elements, but the most fundamental and pervasive was the shift away from a belief in America as the Land of Opportunity, with the best and fairest system in the world, benign and self-correcting, toward an assumption that the American system is deeply flawed and is responsible for the plight of the disadvantaged. Poverty, it was concluded, is caused by structural features of capitalism. If a student misbehaves in school or a young man snatches a purse or a young woman has a baby without a husband, these are expressions of or responses to social conditions beyond their control. Value judgments themselves are inappropriate. Having a baby without a husband is a choice, not a sin or even necessarily a mistake. It is society that must change, not individuals; the rich must see the errors of their ways, not the poor the errors of theirs. To hold people accountable for their behavior is unjust—blaming the victim. Root causes must be corrected.
These views permeated every reform that affected poor people, and especially poor black young people, and there were hundreds of such reforms. They consisted not only of new laws and offices and bureaus and programs, but also of dozens of landmark court decisions, sweeping executive actions, and obscure changes in regulatory and administrative practice that sometimes had wide repercussions.
Boiled down to their simplest terms, the effects of these reforms were as follows. In 1960, it was extremely punishing, financially and socially, to have a baby without a husband. The reforms made that behavior less punishing on both counts. In 1960, the odds of being caught and going to jail if you committed several crimes were high. The reforms lowered the odds both of getting caught and of going to jail. In 1960, public education meant being obliged to comply with a variety of expectations, ranging from actually attending every class, every day, to actually passing examinations. The reforms gutted those requirements.
But the effects of the reforms transcended mechanical changes in odds and probabilities in a few discrete areas. These effects interacted. A young man’s posture toward low-paying jobs is affected when the pressure on him to support his child eases; his interest in studying hard is affected by the increasing attractions of the hustles he sees on the street. A young woman, watching a boyfriend who cannot hold a job, is less likely to demand that he marry her and more likely to go on welfare. That she can now live with a boyfriend without losing her welfare payments alters a wide range of considerations for both of them.
Such interactions in turn form numerous feedback loops and, among other things, tear apart the web of status rewards and penalties that govern behavior in any community. That a high school does not contain just one girl who is pregnant but many erodes the stigma associated with being single and pregnant, and can even turn it into the fashionable thing to do. Holding a low-paying job is something that is admired in a community that depends on precisely such behavior to survive; as the community stops having to depend on that behavior, the praise turns to scorn for working for chump change. Trying hard in school becomes a derisively white thing to do when everyone is supposed to be a victim and oppression is a convenient excuse for failure.
I am not talking of stick-figure caricatures who use calculators to determine the purchasing power of a welfare check, but adolescents trying to make sense of the world around them, responding to short-term pushes and pulls as do adolescents everywhere, and in the process setting in motion complex forces with resonating, mutually reinforcing consequences. The reform period of the 60’s fundamentally changed what makes sense to poor black adolescents in the short term.
During this period, a variety of trend-lines for measuring the status of working-age blacks began to take a turn for the worse. Illegitimacy among blacks had been rising slowly; in the mid-60’s, the slope of the trend-line suddenly steepened. Homicide among blacks had declined during the 50’s. In the mid-60’s, it shot up, along with black arrest rates for violent crime. Black marriage rates and male labor-force participation both plummeted, after a history of remaining near or above white norms.
Those without access to the statistics could see for themselves that life was deteriorating; they could see it around them in the abandoned buildings, the youths hanging out on the streets, and the destruction of the well-ordered black working-class neighborhoods that had once dotted inner cities.
That many trend-lines of social functioning took a turn for the worse during the 60’s is not subject to much dispute. The main source of argument has been about causes. After all, many other things were going on during the 60’s besides changes in government policy. Could not these other factors be to blame? And did not the other trends—the reduction in poverty, for example—tell a brighter story?
The argument has been long and complicated, for the excellent reason that the topic is authentically complex. Trying to tease out the causes of rising illegitimacy and crime is tough; so is trying to decide why the poverty rate went down throughout the 60’s and stopped going down during the 70’s. But in the aftermath of the L.A. riot, this debate is beside the point. If the reforms of the 60’s were never to blame for the rise of the underclass in the 70’s, then they surely are not to blame for its entrenchment in the 80’s. But if they were to blame, then the question becomes: are they still?
The post-L.A. received wisdom seems to have three components. First, since the Republicans have been in power for twelve years, current social policy is their social policy. Second, the plight of black America got worse in the 80’s. Third, we know by this time that some programs worked, with Head Start and Job Corps heading the list, so it is time to hitch up our pants and start doing the things that we know how to do.
All three of these contentions are wrong—with qualifications, of course, but still wrong.
For most of affluent America, the social policies of the 60’s are over and done with. Most of these people have long since sent their children to private schools or moved to suburbs where the public schools are run as the parents wish. Most live in communities where the cops roust suspicious people, the Supreme Court be damned, and crime is low; or they live in urban enclaves where (within the enclave) crime is low. As for the rules about welfare and food stamps and social services, these never affected the affluent.
Within the inner city, however, especially among the poor, and most especially among the black poor, the 60’s remain in full flower. An adolescent on the streets of an inner city as of 1992 lives in a governmental and policy environment only marginally different from the one that had evolved by the early 70’s.
The schools work much as they did then. The reforms of the 60’s saw an elaborate social agenda laid on the schools, the imposition of restrictions on how schools could deal with problem students (and, indirectly, how effectively they could educate gifted students), and layers of bureaucracy and books of rules that went along with vastly expanded federal assistance.
Suburban schools jettisoned much of this nonsense in the 80’s. But the reforms of the 60’s dovetailed nicely with the propensity of big-city school bureaucracies to become ever more immobile, for the teachers’ unions to hedge their responsibilities ever more restrictively, and for big-city pressure groups to use the schools as a political football. A few cities such as Chicago are making desperate attempts to break out of this bind, but with little success. Whatever was wrong with the training and the social signals being given by the educational system to an inner-city adolescent in the early 70’s is still wrong today, and the reforms of the 60’s still bear important responsibility for that.
Welfare remains more generous than it was during the heyday of the 60’s reforms. I know this conflicts with the endlessly repeated claim that the purchasing power of welfare benefits has fallen so much that we are back to the levels of the 50’s. But this argument is always expressed in terms of the purchasing power of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits. If instead one includes all the major elements in the welfare package—adding in food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies—then benefits increased rapidly during the decade from 1965 to 1974, retreated modestly in real value throughout the rest of the 70’s, and rose during the 80’s.
Being more precise involves getting into the question of how Medicaid and housing benefits are to be valued. But throughout the range of the accepted methods, it remains true that the value of the welfare package in 1992 is higher than it was when Ronald Reagan took office, and that it is at the level of the early 70’s, just below the peak. Furthermore, these statements are based on calculations that do not include Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, school-lunch programs, and the many special funds and services for welfare recipients that are part of the package in most major cities.
In short, the assertion that the situation facing a potential welfare mother in 1992 is significantly different from the situation that has faced her ever since the end of the 60’s reforms is simply wrong. The key point about welfare is this: in 1960, it was so meager that only a small set of young women at the very bottom layer of society could think it was “enough” to enable a women to keep a baby without a husband. By 1970, it was “enough,” both in the resources it provided and in the easier terms under which it could be obtained, to enable a broad stratum of low-income women to keep a baby without a husband. That remains true today.
The changes during the Reagan years consisted of the amendments to the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) in 1981, which tightened the eligibility rules for receiving AFDC payments, and the welfare reform bill of 1988. The OBRA amendments represented a significant change, moving away from the assumptions of the 60’s, and it produced a reduction in the welfare rolls. Had there been another half-dozen reforms with the same weight and vector, the Reagan administration could properly claim to have had its own welfare policy. But the OBRA amendments were an isolated exception, and their effects were limited to potential recipients who possessed substantial independent income—not the heart of the welfare problem.
The only other significant change in the welfare system, in 1988, went in the opposite direction. The rhetoric was new, reflecting the principle that society expects welfare recipients to work. But the work and training aspects of the bill were deferred and indefinite. The immediate effect was to expand benefits by granting AFDC women a year of Medicaid coverage and child-care benefits after leaving the rolls. As in the reforms of the 60’s, the intent was to give women on welfare an incentive to get jobs, but, again as in the reforms of the 60’s, the legislation ignored the effects on women who were not on welfare.
Since 1988, the AFDC rolls have broken out of the narrow range within which they had been moving for a decade and have been climbing steadily. Some blame it on the recession, even though welfare rolls have not previously tracked with unemployment. It seems more likely that we are observing the replay of an old phenomenon: whenever Congress has legislated a new incentive for women to leave welfare, the unintended downward pull into the welfare system has outweighed the intended upward push out.
With regard to crime, the situation in the 90’s compared to the 60’s is mixed. The 60’s gave the nation a fundamentally new stance toward law enforcement and punishment. The number of prisoners dropped during the 60’s—not just prisoners in proportion to arrests, but the raw number. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court was handing down the decisions—Miranda, Mapp, and the rest of the usual suspects—that are notorious for restricting the police. The administration of justice during the 60’s became more haphazard, with wider use of plea bargains, longer delays between arrest and trial, trial and sentencing, sentencing and execution of judgment, along with other changes that reduced the swiftness and certainty of punishment for crime. It also happened that crime increased by an astonishing amount during the 60’s.
What is different today? Yes, everyone now favors law and order, including the Supreme Court. But the major decisions of the 60’s have been narrowed only at the margins, not reversed. The rules of the game remain essentially the same as they were at the end of the reform period. If you get picked up today for a felony in a big city, chances are you will be back on the street tomorrow, even if you have a prior record. If your case is pursued at all (many are not), chances are you will be able to plea-bargain it down to a much lesser charge. Unless you have a long prior record, chances are you will do no jail time. All of these procedures will probably take months to transpire.
In one respect, policy has unquestionably changed. The prison population more than doubled during the 80’s, indicating that the risks of going to prison if caught were raised. To that extent, those who say that the Republicans established their own policy and are accountable for it have a point. There are, however, three bottom lines in the crime game. The first is your chance of being punished if you get caught, and that has indeed gone up. But the second is the chance of getting caught at all, and that has either remained steady since the end of the reform period or dropped. The third is opportunities to make money from crime, and this has remained at least constant and, in the drug trade, expanded.
It is unclear how these conflicting trends might balance out in the eyes of an adolescent standing on a streetcorner contemplating whether to get involved in a hustle. It is certainly a mistake to think that the law-and-order years of the Republicans have made a major difference in that adolescent’s perception of how the criminal-justice system works. The system of 1992 is still essentially the system that was shaped by the reform period.
None of this discussion is intended to imply that we could return to the pre-reform levels of crime or illegitimacy if we repealed a few laws and reversed a few Supreme Court decisions. On the contrary, the social dynamics of the inner city have taken on a life of their own, and I think it is unlikely that anything short of radical changes will produce much of an effect on the behaviors associated with the underclass. But if the question is how the social policy of the 60’s can be responsible for the problems of the 90’s, the answer is straightforward: the reform period set those dynamics in motion and, with minor exceptions, the policies it produced are still in effect.
The next question is whether the 80’s saw blacks lose ground, thereby producing the “rage and frustration” that are said to have caused the Los Angeles riot. Unquestionably, some things did get worse, principally antagonism between the races. But racial hostility is one thing; the facts regarding black progress and regression during the 80’s are another. (All the data that follow may be found in the basic statistical compendia of the Bureau of the Census, the National Center for Health Statistics, and the Departments of Labor and Education.)
Median Family Income
|Black (1990 $)||14,262||21,151||20,103||21,423|
After all the talk of shredded safety nets and the rich-getting-richer during the greedy Reagan years is done, it remains true that real black family income fell by about $1,000 during the 70’s and rose by about $1,300 during the 80’s. There are less rosy sides to this picture, however. For example, the median income of black full-time, year-round workers rose for women during the 80’s but continued to fall for men, as it has since the mid-70’s. But overall, the 80’s were better for blacks economically than the 70’s. The 80’s were even better regarding income disparity: the dollar gap with whites grew during the 80’s, but the 70’s were even worse.
Official Poverty Rate
But what about the poor? No, the percentage of black poor did not increase under Reagan; it fell, and by more is than indicated in these numbers—from 34.2 percent in the year he came to office to 30.7 percent in the year he left. It should be added that the official poverty measure is pitted with all sorts of problems, especially its failure to take noncash income and unreported income into account. These two factors would make both the 70’s and 80’s look better in comparison with changes in the 60’s. In any case, comparing decades: after a plunging poverty rate in the 60’s, the 70’s saw a small decrease in black poverty and a small decrease in the gap with whites; this experience was continued in the 80’s. The differences between the two decades are fractions of a percentage point.
Percentage of employed blacks working in white-collar occupations
This figure has been going up since the 50’s. The proportion of blacks working in white-collar jobs grew by much more in the 70’s than in the 80’s. The gap with whites also closed substantially during the 70’s, then held steady during the 80’s. The 70’s were clearly better for blacks on this measure.
Enrollment in school for children ages 14-17
Turning to education, we first look at enrollment in secondary school. Enrollment in high school is a nearly unique example of an indicator in which black children have achieved parity with white children. Black enrollment increased in both the 70’s and 80’s, but somewhat more in the 70’s. In addition, the proportion of high-school dropouts dropped even more during the 70’s than during the 80’s. The 70’s were better for blacks.
Enrollment in school for young adults ages 20-24
This indicator primarily captures attendance at college and graduate school, and the results seem to contradict headlines which have told of declining college enrollment by blacks. There have indeed been problem areas, especially involving black dropout rates and enrollment in graduate schools, but overall the 80’s were a good decade for blacks going to college. For example, the percentage of black high-school graduates who went to college the following fall rose substantially, from 41.9 percent to 52.8 percent during the 80’s (comparable data for 1960 and 1970 are not available). The 80’s were a bit better for blacks.
Male Victimization by Homicide
|Black Rate Per 100,000||34.5||67.6||66.6||58.0|
Crime is an area where it is difficult to know what to make of the data. One of the most solid crime statistics is the number of homicides, and it shows that homicide victimization among blacks dropped in the 80’s and the gap with whites closed modestly. Victimization rates for crimes also show reductions across all types of crime, consistent with this result. On the other hand, arrests of blacks rose during the 80’s after remaining flat during the 70’s, and the public perception that crime has gotten worse seems universal. Let us consider the crime question a puzzle yet to be resolved, leaving open the possibility that more progress was made in the 80’s than is generally thought.
Infant Mortality (deaths per 1,000 live births)
Turning now to health, the first indicator is the widely-cited infant-mortality rate. The black differential with whites continues to be very great, as it has been since statistics have been kept. Blacks achieved large reductions in infant mortality in both the 60’s and 70’s, with slower gains in the 80’s. The gap also continued to narrow, but more slowly than in previous decades. In other words, the story is one of continued progress, not backsliding, but the 70’s were definitely better for blacks.
|Black, In Years||63.6||64.1||68.1||69.7|
Black life expectancy has grown during each of the last three decades. The black-white gap, which widened during the 60’s, narrowed in the 70’s and held steady in the 80’s. Life expectancy has been flat for blacks since 1984 for both males and females, however, and actually fell during a few of those years. The 70’s were much better for blacks on this one.
Illegitimacy Ratio (births to single women as a proportion of live births)
We now come to the underlying problem that drives so many of the other problems among the underclass, children growing up without fathers and women trying to get along without a husband. Beginning with the illegitimacy ratio, the proportion of babies born to single women rose much more in the 70’s than in the 80’s, and so did the size of the gap. On the other hand, things continued to get considerably worse during the 80’s. The 80’s were better for blacks, but only by comparison.
Illegitimate babies produced annually per 1,000 women ages 15-44
|Babies Per 1,000 Black Women||33.1||43.4||48.7||56.4|
It is not just the illegitimacy ratio that has been increasing, but the production of illegitimate babies as well, most markedly during the last half of the 60’s. The 80’s saw continued increases, along with a gap that continued to widen, though slightly less than during the 70’s. There is not much to choose between the two decades. The only bright spot, if it may be called that, is that the proportion of families headed by a single female grew slowly during the 80’s, by only two percentage points, compared to the steep rise from 21.8 to 29.1 percent of black families during the 70’s.
Unemployment among young black males ages 16-24
The problems of the underclass are also rooted in the behavior of young males regarding the labor force. Unemployment rates fluctuate from year to year. The secular trend was rising unemployment for black male youths throughout the 70’s and into the early 80’s, hitting a high of 36.9 percent in 1982. The net drop since then has been large, even after the rise during the current recession. The 80’s were unquestionably better for blacks in this regard. But we are left with a situation in which, even during the best years of the 80’s, black youth unemployment remained well above the levels of the 60’s.
Labor force participation (LFP) among young black males ages 16-24
LFP is a more stable indicator than unemployment and a good indicator of basic stance toward the labor force. The absolute rate fell by roughly the same amounts in both decades (fractionally less during the 80’s). The gap between blacks and whites widened dramatically during the 70’s, continuing a trend that had begun in the mid-60’s, then remained nearly steady in the 80’s. The 80’s were again better for blacks, relatively speaking. But the troubling reality is that a large proportion of young black males of prime working age are not even available for work. Nor is this picture less troubling when educational enrollment is taken into account. Among black males ages 16-24 with no more than a high-school education, who are not in school, roughly 30 percent are not in the labor force.
What is one to make of this heterogeneous set of indicators and results? Partisans of both sides will seize upon the indicators that suit them, but the pattern is probably susceptible to a few generalizations. One is that black status improved in both the 70’s and 80’s on things that primarily reflect external conditions or behaviors by the black middle class. Infant mortality drops as medical technology improves; black enrollment in college expands with financial help and affirmative action; white-collar employment grows among blacks who have taken advantage of educational opportunities.
The second general comment is that the deterioration in black status is concentrated in the mainsprings of the underclass: dropout from the labor force among young males and births to single young women, both of which continued to grow in the 80’s, though more slowly than in the 70’s. As long as these behaviors continue, the plight of the black inner city will deepen.
The final general comment is that the 80’s come out of the comparison much better than the day-to-day media accounts would lead one to expect. People who want to indict the 80’s as a decade of neglect must find other data. I am unaware of any major surprises that lurk in such other measures, but perhaps they exist. If anyone finds them, I suggest only that the presenter follow the procedure used here: show the figures for 1960 and 1970 along with those for 1980 and 1990, and focus on indicators that represent how people’s lives have changed, not how government spending has changed.
So far as government spending goes, there is now almost a mantra: “We know Head Start works. We know Job Corps works.” Other programs sometimes make the list, but these are the stars. Commentary on the problems of the black inner city also has recently begun to assume that certain solutions will work, if only we do the obvious thing and try them.
Thus one often reads op-ed columns in which it is assumed that of course black teenage girls would have fewer babies if only they had access to better sex education, or that of course the unemployment rate among teenage black males would go down if only jobs were made available. This self-assurance is invincibly ignorant of history. The effects of such programs have been assessed, we have a rich and reasonably consistent body of results, and those results are not encouraging.
Head Start is a striking example. Let me begin by saying that I think a good preschool is generally a good thing for the same reason that kindergarten is a good thing, and I am in favor of providing good preschools for disadvantaged children. Head Start, however, is not being discussed just as a nice thing to do for children, but as an example of how we can make progress in the inner city.
The reality is that no program of the 60’s has been more often evaluated, more thoroughly, than Head Start—a synthesis published in 1983 annotated 1,500 studies.1 This work has produced a few broad conclusions. One is that Head Start programs, properly implemented, can enhance some aspects of social development and school performance. But these effects are spotty, and when they occur they fade, disappearing altogether after about three years. All in all, Head Start is not exactly a failure (it is still a nice thing to do for kids), but neither is there any reason to believe that anything will change in the inner city if only Congress fully funds Head Start.
But surely we know that Head Start reduces delinquency and unemployment and pregnancies in later life? No. We have a handful of experimental programs that have made such claims with varying degrees of evidence to back them up, but none of them bears much resemblance to Head Start.
By far the best known of these is the Perry Preschool Program from Ypsilanti, Michigan, which had 58 youngsters and a control group of 65. (Let us pause for a moment and consider what would happen to someone who tried to claim that an intervention strategy did not work on the basis of one program with 58 youngsters.) Perry Preschool had four teachers each year, and in any one year these four teachers together were dealing with no more than a total of 24 children—a 1:6 ratio. The teachers were hand-picked, highly trained and motivated. They received further extensive training in the special curriculum adopted for the program. In addition to the daily preschool time, the program included an hour-and-a-half home visit to each mother each week.
The first salient point is thus that Perry Preschool was a handcrafted little jewel that the federal government cannot conceivably replicate nationwide—not because there is not enough money (though that is part of it), but because of the nature of large programs. Bureaucracies give you Head Starts, not Perry Preschools.
The other salient point has to do with outcomes. Perry Preschool is the chief source of the claim that preschool intervention can reduce high-school dropout, unemployment, delinquency, and pregnancies. Yet when the program’s 58 children were assessed at age nineteen, 33 percent had dropped out of high school, 41 percent were unemployed, 31 percent had been arrested, and the 25 girls had experienced 17 pregnancies.2 All of these numbers were evidence of success because the rates for the control group were even worse, but it is not the sort of success that the advocates of Head Start can afford to describe explicitly.
Like Head Start, the Job Corps has been evaluated many times over the years. When the results have been aggregated over all centers, they have usually shown modest gains in average earnings—a matter of a few hundred dollars per year.3 When evaluators examine individual centers, anecdotal evidence indicates that some are more effective than others. The best ones have a demanding work load, strict rules of behavior, and strict enforcement (which means that many of the entrants never finish the course).
In other words, the Job Corps works for young people who are able to get up every morning, stick with a task, accept a subordinate relationship, and work hard. These people also tend to do well without the Job Corps. Not even the best of the Job Corps centers has a good track record with young people who cannot make themselves get up every morning, who get discouraged easily, get mad when someone tells them what to do, and take a nap when no one is watching. But the latter are among the characteristics of the chronically unemployed.
We have a great deal of experience with job programs that try to deal with the chronically unemployed and the inner-city youth who has never held a job. After twelve years in which social programs have been unpopular, it is easy to forget how massive those job programs were. At their height in the late 70’s, the programs under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) had nearly four million first-time entrants in a single year and an annual budget equivalent to $19 billion in 1990 dollars. The evaluations of CETA came in, and the consensus conclusion was that it had some positive impact on women, but not on men.4 This is consistent with findings from other, small-scale demonstration projects such as those conducted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation and early results from the evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act.
Unfortunately, the failure to affect males is decisive, for a core problem in the inner city is that males are not assuming their role in the community as husbands, fathers, and providers. If job programs are to be the answer for the 90’s, what is it that we propose to do differently this time around?
More generally, attempts to solve the problems of the inner city have a consistent record. The failures vastly outnumber the successes. The claimed successes tend to evaporate when an independent evaluator assesses them. The handful of successes that survive scrutiny are local, small-scale, initiated and run by dedicated people, and operated idiosyncratically and pragmatically—all the things that large-scale federal programs inherently cannot be. Nor, as the government has found after many attempts, can the successes be franchised like a McDonald’s, for the idiosyncratic capabilities of the founders turn out to be crucial to the success of the original.
Ever since the conclusion that “nothing works” was advanced in the 80’s, the advocates of new programs have tried to show why it is an exaggeration. They have been able to do so, insofar as some problems (such as poverty among the elderly) can be cured by writing enough checks, a task at which the federal government excels. But when it comes to programs that will change the behavior of adolescents and young adults, the record of federal social programs (and most state and municipal social programs) remains dismal. The resurgence of optimism about social programs represents a mismatch between the actual nature of the underclass and the way people want it to be, and a mismatch between the actual way that large-scale programs are implemented and the way each new generation of reformers thinks it can implement them.
These observations are out of season. It is a time for lighting candles. But there is a case to be made for cursing the darkness. South-Central Los Angeles and inner cities throughout America did not need to evolve the way they have done. Until the last few decades, poor communities throughout American history had been able to function as communities, despite objective deprivation and oppression far greater than any community faces in 1992. Then, in the space of a few years, just as we were finally lifting the objective elements of deprivation and oppression, we inadvertently undercut the pilings on which communities rest.
It turns out that communities survive by socializing their young to certain norms of behavior. They achieve that socialization with the help of realities to which parents can point—you have to work, or you won’t eat; if you don’t have a husband, you won’t be able to take care of your children; if you commit crimes, you will go to jail. From this raw material, communities fashion the gentler rewards and penalties of social life that constrain unwanted behaviors and foster desired ones. Outside the inner city, we are busily reconstructing the damage done to the social fabric during the reform period of the 60’s, with considerable success. Inside the inner city, that fabric has become so tattered that it is difficult to see any external means of restoration.
I will therefore refrain from concluding with my own ten-point plan. All we can be sure of is that authentic solutions will be radical ones. There are essentially two alternatives. One is authoritarian, treating the inner city as occupied territory and its citizens as wards to be tutored and manipulated by the wise hand of the state. The other, and in my view the only choice that American democracy can live with, is to take seriously the old aphorism that the only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him. The only way that inner-city communities will again begin to function as communities is if the individuals within them are again permitted and required to engage in that most Jeffersonian of enterprises, self-governance.
1 A Review of Head Start Since 1970, by R. Hubbell, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (1983).
2 Changed Lives: The Effects of the Perry Preschool Program on Youths Through Age 19, by John R. Berrueta-Clement et al., High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, pp. 2, 69.
3 “The Short-Term Economic Impact of the Job Corps Program,” by Charles Mallar et al., in Evaluation Studies Review Annual, Ernst Stromsdorfer and G. Farkas, eds., Sage Publications (1980), pp. 332-59.
4 The best longitudinal studies, commissioned by the Department of Labor, are gathered in Evaluation Review (11), No. 4, August 1987.