Martin Fitzwater's assertion that the Los Angeles riot was a result of Great Society programs went right to the top of the charts of an Administration that has elevated irresponsible talk to a high principle of governance. This one ranked right up there with the whopper that Clarence Thomas was the best man in the country for a seat on the Supreme Court.
Washington pundits have trivialized what President Bush was trying to do when he told Fitzwater what to say that day. They have called it the "blame game." That is quite profoundly wrong. What was actually going on was an old fashioned shell game that could accurately be called "hide the wealth, the power, and the responsibility."
A look at the inception of the Great Society will show how the shell game is played. Early in his Administration, John Kennedy made the naive assertion that "a rising tide lifts all boats." He was laboring under the impression that a powerful economy could move everyone out of poverty, and there was some evidence to support that view. The roaring economy created by World War II had lifted millions of Depression-injured citizens out of poverty, and the boom created by pent-up demand after the war had continued to boost the country into unrivaled prosperity. The black poverty rate—90 per cent in 1939—had declined to below 60 per cent by 1959.
Then Kennedy read Michael Harring ton's The Other America and learned that a rising tide can't do a thing for boats that have holes in them. Before he was assassinated, Kennedy had initiated a study of ways to ensure that the country's most injured and isolated people could be helped to join the economy so that they could then be lifted by steady national growth. That study resulted in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1965, the "war on poverty." Other Great Society programs came along at about the same time and were embedded in the same cultural assumptions.
Those assumptions are important if we are to understand why Bush's assertions about the programs of the 1960s and 1970s are nonsense. We were optimistic in those days, and we had every reason to be. Ours was the most powerful nation in the world by virtually every conceivable measure. It enjoyed steady growth in the gross national product and relatively low rates of unemployment and inflation. The manufacturing base—the ladder white underclasses from all over Europe and blacks from the American South had previously climbed into the mainstream—seemed secure and sound. We thought we could accomplish anything we tried; we could even abolish slavery.
But it didn't quite work out that way. President Johnson sent much of the poverty money to Vietnam, and President Nixon ended a number of the programs and scaled back others. Nevertheless, the economy of the 1960s, which merged into the Vietnam war economy, together with some help from the antipoverty programs, managed to cut the poverty rate from the mid double digits in the 1960s to the high single digits in the early 1970s.
And then the war on poverty was defeated by economics. In 1973, the globalization of the world's economies began to squeeze this country. Wages stagnated for many and declined disastrously for our most vulnerable workers. Though we didn't recognize it then, the war on poverty had effectively been called off.
Before I go on with the effects of that termination, let me pay tribute to some of the accomplishments of the legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. Though Bush opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it was being considered, I doubt that even he would deny the beneficial effects of that legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Since he has asked for additional funding for Head Start and has ex pressed approval of the programs that feed women, infants, and children, I assume he has no problems with those efforts, either. And I don't suppose he would want to de crease the medical care available to old people or to the poor under Medicare and Medicaid.
The Community Action Program, at the heart of the old poverty war, took many hits from its critics. My recollection is that community action (along with Head Start) nurtured a level of leadership in the black community that enriched the next two decades of our national life. Many of the country's ablest black politicians cut their eye teeth on those programs.
Community action also brought more life and self-help activity to the black ghettos than I've seen before or since. Since the thrust of the current conservative com plaints about the programs of the 1960s and 1970s is that they left people debilitated and dependent, community action can't be the target. As a matter of fact, in the 1960s the knock on the program was that it made the people in the ghettos too active, too noisy, and too demanding.
Some people confused vigorous community-building and militant advocacy with riot-generation. When people in Congress and the Executive branch wanted the ghettos "cooled off," they killed community action and much of the self-help, activism, pride, and self-sufficiency that went with it.
Finally, of course, there is the Food Stamp Program that President Reagan loved to lampoon. Only two things need to be noted about food stamps (other than that they are vouchers and give hungry people food and choice). The first is that when we in the Johnson Administration left office, the Food Stamp Program was a tiny experiment. It was Richard Nixon who, to his credit, vastly expanded the effort and thereby diminished hunger in this country. The second is that at the height of the Bush recession last winter, about twenty-five million people-one American in ten-ate with the help of food stamps. What alternative, I wonder, do Bush and Fitzwater have in mind?
Was the Great Society a total success? No. Were rip-off artists attracted by these pots of money, as they are by other, far larger pots of Government money (HUD in the 1980s, the Pentagon in the 1980s, the 1970s, the 1960s, and on back, and the savings-and-loan associations after Rea gan-Bush deregulation)? Of course. But the programs still did an enormous amount of good.
The fortunes of poor black men—and, consequently, of their families—have been declining for a long time.
In 1940, 80 per cent of black men had some kind of job and 75 per cent of black families were headed by a man and a woman. University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson tells us that the employment rates for black men have been declining over the last fifty years. But when the world began catching up to us in the early 1970s, wages for most Americans began to stagnate and the bottom fell out for poorly educated men with few skills.
For black men between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four who lacked a high-school diploma, wages dropped by 25 per cent between 1969 and 1986. That meant these men were no longer able to keep a family of four out of poverty with their earnings. By 1980, deindustrialization was blasting through the country and slamming poor black Americans to the wall.
According to William Spriggs, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, this country lost two million industrial manufacturing jobs between 1979 and 1990. During the same period-according to a Census Bureau report that the Ad ministration tried to keep bottled up-the percentage of American workers who worked full time but earned less than a poverty wage rose from 12.1 per cent to 18 per cent.
Black males are like the canaries that were once carried into the coal mines to determine whether gas was present. The unemployment rate for inner-city black males has skyrocketed and the wage rate for those who can find work has plum meted. After deindustrialization had been happening wholesale to blacks for years, it began to bite noticeably into the white work force during the Bush recession. Joblessness and poverty devastate human beings.
In every recession, we begin to see rising alcoholism and drug addiction among people who have lost their jobs. Next come child and spousal abuse, family breakup, and suicide. These behaviors are found in all recessions among laid-off whites and workers of other colors. The black ghettos have been in depression for almost twenty years.
What ails the families in these neighborhoods should be no mystery, though corporate-funded think tanks fret endlessly about the behavior of poor black people. They don't seem to find job creation worthy of their attention. And they spend virtually no time studying the behavior of corporations that rove the globe looking for cheap labor or of casino capitalists who load sound companies with so much debt that they are compelled to eliminate jobs or squeeze workers' wages. The labor, poverty, and urban policies of the Reagan and Bush Administrations have been a virtual class war on workers and the poor. Despite fudging by the Administration, the facts are alive in South Central Los Angeles. Estimates of the un employment rate for black males in that community range up to 45 per cent. A UCLA sociologist put the job loss in the industrial corridors there at 50,000 over the last three decades.
Since the most hideous effects of the Reagan-Bush policies have been felt in the poorest black communities, the rest of the country has not been acutely aware of the impact of deindustrialization and other Reagan-Bush policies. Now, as a result of the recession and the Los Angeles riot, white Americans are beginning to get a sense of what has been going on.
So it has become imperative for the Bush Administration to divert people's attention from their true interests. It's no surprise that the party that has reaped great political rewards in Presidential elections since 1980 by positioning itself as a friend of the white man would dip again into the well of racism. The riots, with their images of blacks running wild, came just in time to provide cover for those whose hands are really in the pockets of the average American taxpayer.
Rich Americans and the great corporations want to keep doing all they can to increase the already obscene share of wealth they possess. That includes driving down wages and living standards and, where necessary, shutting down American enterprises and shipping jobs abroad.
At some point, Americans will wake up and figure out that poor blacks are not responsible for the loss of jobs and market share in the last dozen years. They will then insist that the country develop a national economic program in which indus try, labor, and government start pulling together to create a job-rich economy and to compete effectively with Europe and Japan.
In the meantime, we need an emergency public-works jobs program to put citizens back on the job doing useful work. An enormous jobs program won't cure all our ills, but it will have to do until the truly irresponsible people in America-those who insist on wielding unaccountable economic power for themselves alone and those "public servants" who are bought to protect them-are brought into a decent social contract with the rest of us.
As for the idea that the Great Society did the damage-well, if you believe that, you'll also believe that Marlin Fitzwater is the tooth fairy.