THE RECENT partial settlement of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of low-income African Americans has provoked a storm of comment. Both sides of the argument claim to be right, but what of those being argued about -- the aggrieved parties?
The law is clear from numerous court decisions that the concentration of low-income African Americans in publicly financed projects in the inner city is unconstitutional. That is why Baltimore and the Department of Housing and Urban Development settled the lawsuit brought against them.
It is also clear from numerous similar cases in other parts of the country that the remedy for this violation is to permit members of this class who desire to do so to move into more prosperous and less segregated communities throughout the region where a landlord will rent them a unit. The person moving pays 30 percent of income in rent; the federal government pays the remainder. (Americans who are not poor, on average, pay considerably less than 30 percent of their incomes for shelter.)
Research supports the common-sense conclusion that a poor child is better off being raised in a middle-class community than in a lower-class one. The effect of such a move on poor children is dramatic in terms of school performance. We should ask ourselves if we would want to raise our children in the neighborhoods many of these persons come from.
Opponents of such measures have reasonable concerns.
* "They will bring crime to our neighborhoods." Suburbanites are afraid of crime and do not want the government to subsidize its transfer from the city to their neighborhood. But the persons eligible to move are almost exclusively single women with small children. The crime rate for such a family is almost zero.
* "They will be concentrated in my neighborhood and create another pocket of poverty." But the number of potential movers is so small that concentration is unlikely, if not impossible. An agreement among suburban jurisdictions as to a fair-share allocation and among apartment owners in all neighborhoods to rent to such tenants would insure against any re-concentration of poverty.
* "It gives to those who never worked for it what I worked for. Why?" Many suburbanites benefited from government-guaranteed college loans, FHA mortgage insurance, subsidized water and sewer systems -- a long list of government programs that had the effect of subsidizing the middle class and even the wealthy. The property-tax and mortgage-interest deductions from income taxes for homeowners constitute an annual subsidy to the middle class and wealthy greatly in excess of all low-income housing subsidies.
* "It's social engineering." Every public program by definition is social engineering in that it attempts to achieve a result that otherwise might not take place. Public schooling, for example, might be called "social engineering." It exists to raise education levels above those that existed before. Social Security has improved the lives of millions of elderly. Is government action classed as "social engineering" only when one disagrees with it, or does not benefit from it?
The sides in public disputes demonize their opponents and deal in stereotypes because they are arguing with abstractions, and not with individuals. Thus proponents of mobility see suburban opponents as "racists," and the suburbanites see potential movers as criminals and drug addicts. Some suburbanites (and urbanites) are indeed racists, and some of the poor are criminals. But most suburbanites are racially tolerant and most poor people are not criminals or drug addicts.
Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is a well-intentioned man in a difficult position. He is understandably attempting to protect what he sees as the interests of his constituents. He makes a refreshing observation that adds to the debate: If our suburban churches and synagogues would each adopt five to ten inner-city families and then invite them to move into their community and assist them with the adjustment, the reaction of suburbanites might be very different.
I applaud the idea. In effect, Mr. Ruppersberger is asking exactly the right question: Do we want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution? Each of us has the answer to that one.
Robert C. Embry Jr. is president of the Abell Foundation.