Washington. -- Quick. What kind of picture comes to mind when you hear the following words: "Poverty"? "Welfare mothers"? "Teen pregnancy"? "Crime"? "Underclass"?
If an image of poor black people comes to mind, consider yourself fully indoctrinated by unfortunate modern-day stereotypes that distort the real nature and extent of poverty in America.
It was not always so. In the 1960s, when news cameras followed John and Robert Kennedy into rural Appalachia, the face of poverty presented to the public was white.
And a funny thing happened: The sight of suffering white families spurred white America in those times, which admittedly were more prosperous than today's era of economic uncertainty, to fund the most ambitious war on poverty America has ever seen.
The white poor remain among us, but today's face of poverty conveyed by the media tends to be that of a violent, young, urban black male, reared, we are led to presume, by a young, single welfare mom. The response from Americans who don't look like them (and from more than a few who do) has been less compassionate than fearful, angry, suspicious, resentful and contemptuous. Today we are less inclined to buy a government prescription than to buy a gun.
Liberals dislike this development and so, it turns out, do conservatives like Charles Murray, whose 1984 book, "Losing bTC Ground," helped fuel the Reagan-era assault on welfare programs as allegedly being more of a cause than cure of social problems.
While white Americans have incorrectly put a black face on poverty and pushed it to the margins of their thinking, a new white "underclass" is gaining visibility.
Out-of-wedlock births have grown fast enough among poor whites, Mr. Murray writes under the eye-grabbing headline "The Coming White Underclass," in the Wall Street Journal, to touch the threshold Daniel P. Moynihan detected in 1965 when he was simultaneously praised and attacked nationwide for calling it a dangerous pathology among poor blacks.
Since Mr. Moynihan stirred controversy with his report, black out-of-wedlock births have grown from less than 30 percent to more than 60 percent of all black births in America.
"But the black story, however dismaying, is old news," writes Mr. Murray, now a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "The new trend that threatens the U.S. is white illegitimacy. Matters have not yet quite gotten out of hand, but they are on the brink. If we want to act, now is the time."
The 1990 census shows births to single white women have risen to 22 percent of all white births, says Mr. Murray. But, even more startling, 44 percent of births to white women who were below the poverty line were out-of-wedlock, he says.
Mr. Murray reminds his readers of something too many Americans too often forget: a larger percentage of blacks are poor, but in raw numbers poor whites have more people in poverty, more out-of-wedlock children, more women on welfare, more unemployed men and more arrests for serious crimes.
Yet whites have not had an underclass as such, he writes. "Whites have had 'white trash' concentrated in a few streets on the outskirts of town, sometimes a Skid Row of unattached white men in the large cities. But these scatterings have seldom been large enough to make up a neighborhood. An underclass needs a critical mass, and white America has not had one."
Or maybe whites have not had an underclass "as such" because most Americans have refused to see it. I agree with Mr. Murray's data, but I differ sharply on his diagnosis and prescriptions. Despite connections he admits are "murky," he blames today's "underclass" on social programs that, he alleges, encouraged out-of-wedlock births.
I agree with the University of Chicago's William Julius Wilson that rising out-of-wedlock births are a symptom of deeper problems, like structural changes in the economy that have removed the low-skilled, high-wage jobs.
Those jobs brought black families (like mine) from the rural South to big industrial cities and supported the social fabric of black communities. When they went, so did "marriageable men," Mr. Wilson writes. Welfare moved in and the fabric frayed.
Since Mr. Murray blames the problem on out-of-wedlock births, he would "solve" it by starving today's welfare moms into more acceptable behavior. Remove welfare supports, he says, and they would have to find help with family, boyfriends or foundations, or the state would put their kids in foster homes. He is not kidding.
I favor less draconian measures. There's probably nothing wrong with the underclass that jobs and, wherever necessary, a reinfusion of the work ethic and family values wouldn't fix.
Most Americans will agree, I suspect, once they find that a problem they thought belonged to somebody else arrives at their doorsteps.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.