Our own worst enemies are, of course, ourselves


IN THE BATTLE to combat the growth of the urban underclass, we Americans may be among our own worst enemies.

We look at poverty in the inner cities, see broken families, school dropouts and lawbreakers -- and say people in the underclass must change their "values." Today, even most liberals agree that more individual and family responsibility must go hand-in-hand with more government spending.

But as a nation -- across all economic classes -- we often do not practice what we preach. We have repressed an uncomfortable secret: Far more than we care to admit, the harmful behavior of the long-term poor is nearly a mirror image of the behavior of the rest of us.

The most obvious example is our attempt to reduce the alarming rate of teen pregnancy and female-headed households in inner cities. We keep telling young people to say no. Creative advertising campaigns beam the message on TV. Yet the national trend is just the opposite. Sex and permissiveness flood popular entertainment and the lifestyles of the rich, middle and working classes -- as well as the poor. National surveys show rising sexual activity and pregnancy rates among all American teen-agers.

The same goes for our wish to stem violence among low-income males. Yet violence is glorified and commercially exploited on TV and movie screens.

We want inner-city students to study hard and stay in school. Yet American education is under attack across the board. Report after report demonstrates the inferior performance of our students compared not just to those in Japan and Germany but to those in most advanced countries. American high school students are found to be bored stiff, to study very little, to be consumed with materialism and to devalue the worth of education.

Liberals and conservatives have long waged ideological war over whether a separate, self-destructive "culture of poverty" exists in America. Now a consensus may be emerging.

In a recent article in a neo-conservative journal, The Public Interest, David Whitman concludes that the "ordinariness of ghetto residents" (their similarities to everyone else) helps to explain the formation of the underclass. They are subject to "ever-more-casual public attitudes" toward family structures, religion, personal savings, violence and sex -- "all of which ha[s] had a doubly onerous impact in the inner city. The old adage, when white America gets a cold, black America gets pneumonia, still resonates."

Even the conservative Wall Street Journal carried an editorial titled "Trickle-Down Morality." It proclaimed that the behavior of the poor "reflect[s] trends in the mainstream culture," particularly "mixed signals on the issues of promiscuity and illegitimacy."

As a nation we have been slow to grasp the truth. It tells us unpleasant things about ourselves. And it destroys convenient stereotypes particularly about blacks and welfare recipients.

Contrary to popular belief, research consistently shows that welfare recipients share a strong belief in the work ethic. Most work off and on. Those who stay long-term on the rolls do so for a tangle of economic and social reasons, which is why we have to substitute work (including a decent family wage and health benefits) for welfare and provide better education so the poor will be able to move to better jobs.

Many commentators have pointed out the tragic fact that even young drug dealers in the ghetto reflect cherished entrepreneurship. Inner-city youth who sell drugs take bold risks for big gains in the only "business" readily accessible to them.

Law professor Jerome H. Skolnick, who has interviewed many gang-affiliated drug dealers in California, says his and other research is "consistent in one major respect: Gang members are not lazy and indifferent. They are tough and resourceful . . . competitive individualists . . . who join gangs because they calculate that joining will improve their income, status and safety." (For proof of that, witness the articulate Los Angeles gang members interviewed on ABC's "Nightline" Monday night.)

Yes, welfare recipients cheat, hiding income received from family and friends and the underground economy. But what segment of society these days doesn't? Every day there are media accounts of illegal or highly unethical practices by lawyers, doctors, Wall // Streeters, corporate executives, academic researchers and public officials.

The masses follow along. Many good Americans cheat on their income tax and, given the chance, defraud insurance companies. In these matters, like others, adults are role models for the young.

The American poor can't defer gratification, it is commonly said. But how many investors, producers or consumers in America can? Corporate America often makes shady deals and shoddy products, pursuing short-term profits at the expense of the kind of long-term investment in research and development that gives Japan a competitive advantage. Through the huge national budget deficit, we put off our debts to another day and another generation. The rampant materialism in our culture pushes consumers to spend now, not save for the future.

The point is not to condone irresponsible behavior among the poor. No significant improvement in their lives can occur until there is more self-help, less violence, fewer drugs.

But that will take much longer to happen as long as society sends so many double messages and sets such a loose example.

In Ernest Hemingway's famous rejoinder to to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the difference between the rich and the poor is that the former "have more money." The poor, like the rest of us, will continue to be influenced in their cultural habits not by what others say but by what they do.

Understanding this truth about ourselves will not solve the problems of the poor. But, in addition to more liberal government support of education and jobs and more conservative self-reliance, we need to climb to a higher ground of national character and common purpose.

Kalman R. Hettleman, former Maryland secretary of human resources, now directs programs serving Baltimore inner-city youth.

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