The Cost of Dreams Deferred


The "Save Our Cities" campaign is back in the news. Parren J. Mitchell, a former congressman who now looks like a prophet, led the urban activists' first march on Washington last October, but the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill show stole all the thunder on Capitol Hill. The country, mesmerized by the bizarre spectacle on C-Span, ignored the clear warnings about the sad state of American cities one more time, just as such warnings had been ignored all through the 1980s.

The L.A. riots, in a flaming "amen" to the last line in a Langston Hughes poem asking "What happens to a dream deferred," put city dwellers' needs back onto the front pages. Today's march, planned before anyone knew there would be a riot, aims to move urban needs to a meaningful place on the American agenda.

The rioting, looting and senseless brutality of the mobs running amok in L.A. have been denounced by well-meaning people across the country. But no observer could miss the fact that the 3,000 people who gathered at the Washington Monument to complain about the very conditions at the heart of L.A.'s troubles were ignored before everybody got nervous.

Judging by the rapid export of L.A.'s unrest in demonstrations and violent outbursts in other cities, there is plenty to be nervous about.

Having fallen asleep at Ronald Reagan's pronouncement of "Morning in America," a big majority of the American electorate cheered when he unleashed a Bolshevik attack on the "liberal" programs that helped the cities. George Bush, in a fit of honesty, called Mr. Reagan's "supply-side" theories "voodoo economics," but found a comfort zone in the political irresponsibility of the times, first as vice president and now as chief executive.

The net result, despite a paper-thin proclamation of a "kinder and gentler America," was devastating. Between 1981 and the fiscal 1993 budget, drastic cuts were made:

* Community-development block grants fell 54 percent in real dollars, from an inflation-adjusted $6.3 billion to $2.9 billion.

* Urban Development Action Grants, a Ford-administration good idea, were eliminated.

* Mass-transit funding for cities fell by half, from an inflation-adjusted $6 billion to $3 billion.

* Employment and training funds, a key place to ease the pain of the inner city, were cut 54.8 percent in real dollars.

* Construction funds for cleaning up the water supply, which also provided many jobs, fell 58.3 percent in real dollars.

In all, the Save Our Cities campaign says, federal funds as a percentage of city budgets fell more than 64 percent, from an average of 17.7 percent in 1980 to 6.4 percent in 1990. Municipal governments could not simply walk away from their citizens' needs, even if federal policy makers had. Their contributions of local revenues climbed from 64.7 percent in 1980 to 75 percent in 1990. State contributions to local revenues inched up, from 1980's 11.1 percent to 12.2 percent.

There is a cost for such neglect. It shows up in under-educated, jobless citizens, who know they have been abandoned by a society eager to forget the lessons of the 1960s. Sure, jobs moved out to the suburbs and exurbs, an inexorable shift as superhighways and expressways moved better-educated residents out of central cities. Sure, the "role models" and community leaders left as schools deteriorated.

But it is not lost on those left behind that the best jobs in the city still go to those who have moved out. Pointing out that the "service sector" jobs in those gleaming office towers downtown demand better education than many inner-city residents have means nothing when study after study shows that discrimination prevents many from getting them even when they are prepared. Add the clear hostility of the American electorate to the few programs set up to give the nation's poorest the boost they need to vie for such jobs and to move their families to nicer neighborhoods, and the preconditions for an explosion are all too visible.

Too bad there had to be an actual outbreak of violence to wake everybody up.

So here we are again, with thousands of city dwellers mounting buses to march on Washington, yelling "Save Our Cities. Save Our Children!" A long list of supporters, from New York and New England, Pennsylvania and Delaware, the Midwest and as far away as the West Coast is signed on this time.

Perhaps the president and his policy team will hear more than the shifting of the polls, telling him and the Congress it is long past time to get past the nice-sounding rhetoric and move on to the real answers. The Great Society is much criticized these days, but its programs cut poverty in half. Will George Bush be able to say that, when his presidency is history?

Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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