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"Locked in the Poorhouse,"

by Fred Harris January/February 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Either the Advisory Board or the staff of the President's Initiative on Race ought to make a public report, telling us where we are, right now, in regard to race and poverty in the United States and what should be done about it.

I was a member of the Kerner Commission, which in 1968 said: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." Too many Americans are like the folksinger, tuning her guitar, whose patter was: "If I ever get this thing tuned again, I'm going to weld it." Because the nation made progress for a time in the late ‘60s and most of the ‘70s, people think we solved the intertwined problem of race and poverty, back then — and then welded it.

That's not so. There's more poverty now than there was 30 years ago, and it's harder to get out of. America's central cities are smaller, poorer, and blacker (and browner) than they were then. They've become America's poorhouses (as Paul Jargowsky has put it), created and sustained by historical and institutional racism and worsened by the effects of technological development and economic globalization.

America's cities and schools are resegregating. Urban core tax bases and, thus, schools and services have deteriorated, as good jobs have disappeared or, together with a lot of middle-class people, moved to the suburbs. City poverty has become more concentrated — and harder to escape. Millions of Americans are locked in the poorhouse and can't get out.

Somebody's got to say so. And it ought to be the President's Initiative on Race. They ought to publicize these bleak facts. They ought to show how what we tried back then — jobs, training, Headstart, affirmative action, for example — mostly worked, but that we just quit trying them or didn't try them hard enough. The Initiative ought to show us how, in the overall scheme of things, the problems — the number of people involved and the cost of solutions — are quite small, manageable, soluble, especially in this post-Cold War era.

And they ought to make clear to us that failure to act, continuing on America's present path, will prove much more costly, more destructive and wasteful of human life, more a threat to our national security and self-esteem.

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