Three Fifths


It is no accident that the president's annual State of the Union address and budget proposals to Congress are preceded by the National Urban League's "State of Black America" reports.

Presidents, Republican or Democratic, seek to promote the most hopeful view of what is to come. And as many critics on both sides of the congressional aisles have noted, over the last decade presidential views of what is happening to federal revenues -- the bottom line under all the hopeful proposals -- have been full of wishful thinking.

While President Reagan promised to focus federal emphasis on the "truly needy," he cut the heart out of programs targeted to their direst problems, firmly closing the door on congressional redress by boosting spending for military arms. Adding insult to injuries already made grievous, Mr. Reagan even redirected the discussion over priorities: think my weapons are less important than your concern for people? You must be a soft-headed liberal, soft on defense, soft on the evil empire of communism.

Now, with U.S. troops committed to a desert struggle with the third- or fourth-largest military machine in the world, Mr. Reagan's supporters are crowing that his military buildup worked, that all the "carping" from the sidelines is being proved wrong. Look closely at that claim, and it is clear that most of the systems that have worked well thus far -- "Stealth" technology and Patriot missiles, for two -- were actually funded by Jimmy Carter's budgets.

Meanwhile, back in the inner cities of America, people have continued to suffer. No bombs are falling on them, but even during the midst of the longest economic recovery of the last 50 years, the policy reversals of the Reagan era continue to hit their homes with devastating effect. George Bush, who sat at Mr. Reagan's elbow and now has the Chief Executive's chair all to himself, pleased many with his promises of a "kinder and gentler" America, but took it all back when it came his time to ante up.

Summing up the net result, State of Black America writer David H. Swinton, dean of the school of business and professor of economics at Jackson State University, reported that, "the consistency of these results for the last decade leads to one inescapable conclusion: The disadvantaged status of the African American population is a permanent feature of the American economy." Those are his italics, not mine.

Polemicists of the 1960s made much of the inhumanity of the "three-fifths compromise" of the early years of this country, which equated each of a slave-holding state's black residents to three-fifths of a man in political status. Examining Professor Swinton's projections of economic status, one cannot but be struck by the finding on his "index of equality" of yet another three-fifths rule. In per-capita income, black Americans receive just three-fifths of the income of whites, creating income gaps that are as debilitating as the old disenfranchisements delivered in the political arena.

Mr. Bush's most recent budget, devised to take the sting out of congressional Democrats' attack on tax breaks for the rich, purports to reach down to those least served by the economy and address their problems.

In health, his administration offers to cut Medicare funding for elderly people with incomes of $125,000 a year, to produce a savings of an estimated $1.2 billion. Preliminary reports by independent observers say Mr. Bush's health budget actually cuts $23 billion from Medicare, however. That's despite an inflation-adjusted 3-percent increase in all health programs. Can such a deep cut help the poorest? Be serious.

In housing, another critical area, Mr. Bush and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp continue to push for tenant takeovers of public housing. Everyone can laud the success of the handful of self-management programs exemplified by Washington's Kimmie Gray and her fellow tenants, but many observers wonder how the tenants-turned-owners will be able to support the heavy maintenance bills of the average public-housing project without large federal subsidies, which seem still to be missing from the proposals.

In much the same vein, the budget goes on. Small boosts here and there, even some significant ones, for the lifeline that keep the nation's most disadvantaged, whites as well as blacks, hanging on. No major shifts in the policies that left blacks out for all the decade of the Eighties, however, accompanying rhetoric notwithstanding.

There should be no wonder in any quarters, then, that the reports in the State of Black America make such bleak reading, year to year.

Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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