Carter's Finest Hour


Atlanta.--When America turned its shoulder on poor people, Jimmy Carter put on his overalls and helped Habitat for Humanity build low-income houses. As Africa crumbled, he became a peacemaker. He advises Gov. Bill Clinton on Middle East policy and clearly yearns to take a personal hand in finishing the work he began with the Camp David accord.

But nothing Mr. Carter has undertaken since his presidency quite matches the perplexity and import of what he has inaugurated in Atlanta this year.

Mr. Carter believes America's greatest domestic challenge is to reverse the deep poverty -- the homelessness, unemployment, teen pregnancy, lack of health care, the scourges of crime and drugs and lost lives -- which grip the nation's inner cities.

He believes the welfare and economic and physical security of every member of the nation's metropolitan communities is imperiled unless urban poverty is subdued. His list of the stakeholders includes suburbanites as well as city people, whites as well as blacks and Latinos, corporations great and small, churches, universities and each level of government.

Mr. Carter maintains that pilot programs and demonstration projects won't do any more. So "The Atlanta Project," which he launched earlier this year, is targeting no less than 400,000 people living in the poorest neighborhoods of Atlanta and Fulton and DeKalb counties.

No anti-poverty effort of comparable scale, reaching out to virtually all of a region's poor neighborhoods, has ever been attempted. Appropriate to its scale, the project entails a mass organizing effort to "rope in" the entire Atlanta metropolitan community.

Suburbanites are being asked to volunteer time. Corporations are being asked to offer cash, job openings and unprecedented direct involvement in individual poor neighborhoods. The project has already won pledges, mostly from corporations and foundations, for $11 million of its initial five-year $18 million fund-raising goal.

Governments are being asked to simplify the morass of welfare and food stamp and Medicaid applications which bedevil the poor. Carter appealed personally to Atlanta-area local governments for cooperation, and then to the White House and key federal departments for regulation waivers. He says he has received 100 percent cooperation, even from President Bush.

Mr. Carter, the detail-oriented ex-engineer, began the Atlanta Project as a top-down effort. But he moved to make it a bottoms-up initiative by creating 20 semi-independent geographic clusters -- a decision reached after spirited debate with Dan Sweat, the veteran downtown Atlanta civic leader he selected to direct the project. Each cluster has a full-time coordinator, financed by the Atlanta Project but supposedly highly sensitive to local sentiment.

Kick-off town meetings are held in each cluster; then residents are encouraged to form into task forces mirroring the major issue areas the Atlanta Project has identified as critical for inner-city revival -- health, economic development, housing, community development, criminal justice and education.

Mr. Carter himself became adviser to the Crim High School cluster which encompasses a semi-abandoned public housing project in an area informally dubbed "little Vietnam" for its high level of violence.

"When I first visited I was the center of attention," the ex-president told me. But now, he says, the residents are taking up the work tasks directly. "At a recent task-force meeting on criminal justice, I was more or less in the way."

Outside resources will be critical, though. The Marriott Corporation, personally recruited by Mr. Carter, agreed to adopt the Crim cluster, starting with a $50,000 contribution and opening hiring sites in local schools for some of its 15,000 Atlanta region job slots. Marriott is also asking corporate volunteers to help with literacy training and will assist small community-based firms to become vendors to the corporation.

United Parcel Service, Delta Airlines, Coca-Cola, IBM, Home Depot, Georgia Power, Bell South, NationsBank and the Wachovia Bank have also signed on for substantial contributions, each adopting a cluster.

This broad inclusivity has to be at the heart of any urban revival worth its salt -- first, to empower residents to set their own agendas; second, to connect them with some of American society's mainstream sources of wealth, influence and personal contacts.

But it's destined to be tricky business. Atlanta is the nation's ninth-poorest city and racial animosities bubble just below the surface.

Recently the Atlanta Project's director for education, Jim Young, was asked to step down by Mr. Carter for lack of a sufficiently sweeping school-reform agenda. Mr. Young then went public with charges of "racial arrogance" and "insensitivity" -- charges Mr. Carter categorically denied but that still triggered both public embarrassment and soul-searching at the Atlanta Project's top.

Beyond race, there are bound to be tensions between the independent-minded clusters and the top central staff Mr. Carter has recruited for the project.

But who ever thought it would be easy to bridge the massive cultural and income gaps in America's great metropolitan areas? While his fellow former presidents spend their time on their fairways or collecting massive honorariums, Jimmy Carter is committing his time, prestige and caring to the task of breaking America's logjam of hopelessness on urban poverty. Even if he succeeds only partially, it could be his finest hour.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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