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"Escaping Clinton's Control,"

by Frances Fox Piven January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Presidential advisory bodies are not ordinarily created to craft genuinely new policy recommendations. Rather their purpose is legitimation; they are appointed to delay and defuse popular demands for governmental action on a problem, or to justify with studies and reports a policy direction already decided. And sometimes, as seems to be the case with the Advisory Board to the President's Initiative on Race, the intention is merely to adorn with serious studies and lofty thoughts a government determined to do nothing of consequence.

A number of the contributors to the Nov./Dec. Poverty & Race have made the reasonable argument that race relations are not likely to improve unless the economic conditions of poor and working people improve. But the Advisory Board is the agent of a President who has presided over the unprecedented economic circumstances of the 1990s, when the economy boomed, profits spiralled upward and wages stagnated or fell, especially for the lowest paid. Bill Clinton responded to these conditions by talking family values and signing a welfare bill that is flooding the low-wage labor market with desperate women, thus driving wages down even further.

I don't mean by these comments that the Initiative on Race should be ignored. Just possibly, the Advisory Board and the dialogue it is overseeing may have consequences the President does not intend by helping to give courage and voice to the groups and the commitments that have so far been effectively suppressed by this Administration. It is a bleak political moment, and no possibility should be ignored. Still, if this is an opportunity, it is not likely to be realized through polite contributions and good suggestions. My hope rather is that the Initiative on Race sparks enough outrage and indignation so that the temper of the national dialogue rises and escapes Clinton's control.

Frances Fox Piven is on the faculty of the Graduate School of the City University of NY. She is co-authot with Richard Cloward of Regulation the Poor, and The Breaking of the American Social Contract.

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