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Poverty talks -- in riots and desperate acts


This president of ours seems to be the last one in America to discover there is trouble in the cities.

George Bush goes to Los Angeles and blames the rioting on the '60s. Does he mean the 1860s? Is he blaming that bleeding-heart Lincoln for freeing those pesky slaves? It makes as much sense as Bush blaming Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society programs.

In the 24 years since Johnson left office, the Republicans have held the White House for 20 years. Did they not have a chance to peek out the window since 1968? Did they not have an urban agenda of their own?

Actually, no. And so, in 24 years, we have now gone from American cities in flames to . . . well, American cities in flames.

So we now have George Bush touring what's left of a Los Angeles shopping center and pledging help for the survivors of the carnage. That's nice. But the president wears a strange expression on his face, a mixture of concern and confusion, the look of a man who's arrived late and declares, "I just got here. What in the world is going on?"

Suddenly, he talks of money. The rioting in Los Angeles ran up quite a tab: hundreds of millions of dollars, of which Bush has pledged about $300 million in federal assistance. Does anyone notice history repeating itself here?

A long time ago, clearly longer than the memory of all who wield power in Washington, there were riots in many American cities, out of which the federal government suddenly appeared to gain a conscience.

Money came pouring out of Washington for anti-poverty programs, for health assistance, for schools and, yes, the dreaded and much-maligned welfare programs. Was all of this ** really the government developing a heart, or just a kind of temporary response to implied blackmail, a show of dollars to purchase a few calm summers?

For a hint, go back 20 years. Go to a boardroom inside a health suite in downtown Baltimore. The room is filled with some government bureaucrats and maybe a dozen street guys from Cherry Hill. The bureaucrats are wearing suits and ties. The street guys are wearing sunglasses and impatient expressions.

"The brothers are dying," says a fellow named Nose, who held a steady job downtown. "They say we've got to get a drug program in Cherry Hill."

The bureaucrats are polite. They would love to help, they say, but there isn't any money.

Nose explains that junkies in Cherry Hill, wishing to purge their bodies of heroin, have tried to enroll in existing city drug programs. But the programs are all filled and have sadly turned them away.

"We'd love to help," says one bureaucrat, "but there just isn't any money."

"Well," says Nose, rising to his feet, "we're gonna find out how much money you have for some kind of jive study when the Cherry Hill Shopping Center gets burned to the ground."

In a heartbeat, the world changes.

"You know," one bureaucrat says, "there is that emergency fund . . ."

"That's right," says another, "and there's this federal grant that . . ."

The upshot, in a nation then living under the shadow of recent riots, in a city struggling to stay afloat, in a South Baltimore community ravaged by drugs, was a multipurpose drug abuse DTC and general health center that has serviced much of Cherry Hill for the past 20 years.

But, shamefully, it took the threat of violence to do it, just as it took violence to bring a reluctant George Bush to the streets of an American city to speak of spreading dollars across an urban landscape.

Much of this talk brings outrage from some white Americans. They point, rightfully, to black crime and drug traffic, to black teen-age pregnancies and the crutch of welfare passed from one generation to the next.

"Special treatment for blacks!" the angry whites cry at talk of money for cities. Special treatment? What's special about money for schools, or basic health care, or job training? And yet, a year ago, at the time of the first Save Our Cities March on Washington, the people from this city -- black and white -- brought this message of the last 10 years of neglect:

Federal funds to elementary and secondary schools here were down 32 percent. Health grants were down 59 percent. Job training was down 89 percent. And this president, while calling ,, narcotics traffic "the greatest domestic threat facing our nation," was proposing a budget in which anti-drug funds comprised .065 percent of the total package.

George Bush seems oblivious to the contradictions. As government did 24 years ago, he has waited for the most frightening signs of trouble before rousing himself. From history, nothing has been learned.

Is it Bush's fault that black crime is so high, that black teen-age pregnancy is so high? On the face of it, no. There are troublemakers who wouldn't straighten out if Abraham Lincoln or even Jesse Jackson were president.

But the balance in this country has gone completely out of kilter.

In Los Angeles, residents told the president they needed low-cost housing to survive today's high cost of living.

No kidding.

The nation now spends more money on prison construction than it does on low-cost housing construction, while Bush proposes a new budget that would include zero dollars for new public housing construction.

And, in the last 12 years, we've become a nation in which 1 percent of the country has 37 percent of the wealth, 10 percent has 68 percent of the wealth, and the bottom 90 percent divides what's left.

Who's in the bottom 90 percent? You figure it out. Poverty among blacks is triple the rate among whites.

And, at week's end, a new joke made the rounds about George Bush, who seemed so stunned by the events in Los Angeles:

How many White House advisers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A5 None. The president would rather sit in the dark.

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