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May 15, 1992|Roger Wilkins | Roger Wilkins, who was a member of the presidential team sent to Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts riot, is a professor of history at George Mason University

WASHINGTON — The main things needed to connect the poor people of Los Angeles to the economic and political life of the country are jobs. In the short term, we need federal, state and local job-creating activities in the inner cities. We need to put a lot of people to work in a hurry.

For the long term, the nation needs an industrial policy to create a more powerful economy. We must generate the kinds of private-sector jobs that provide ladders up into the life of the nation--as entry-level jobs did for so many underclass European immigrants and blacks from the South when our industrial base was still strong and growing.

This simple prescription is usually overlooked because many white Americans seem relentlessly determined to miss the point when they begin discussing poor black people. All but the blindest racial ideologues would have to concede that racism does exist and it limits the opportunities of the poorest black Americans. Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that our brutally competitive culture--in which winners are venerated and losers vilified--makes us oblivious of the fact that the awful damage done to our most vulnerable citizens injures us all.

The most useful explanation for the suffering poor people endure and the behavior they exhibit is that too few jobs of any kind are available to them. Of the jobs within their reach, far too many pay too little to lift the worker and the family out of poverty.

Deindustrialization is hurting the country and it is devastating the black ghetto. Dr. William Spriggs, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, estimates that the United States has lost 2 million production jobs in the manufacturing sector between 1979 and 1990.

In our history, the principal vehicle to lift people out of poverty has been a growing economy. Unfortunately, the economy hit a wall in 1973--earnings stagnated for most Americans, but declined precipitously for men with limited education and skills. Between 1969 and 1986, according to the National Research Council, black men aged 24-35 and without a high-school diploma experienced an income decline of 25%--dropping their capacity to support a family of four to below the poverty line. At the same time, jobs began drifting away from the inner cities--in some cases, across borders and oceans. I have seen some estimates of black male unemployment in South Los Angeles that range as high as 40%.

Joblessness affects all human beings badly, no matter what their color. Union psychologists, journalists who have covered Appalachia or dying steel towns and family counselors all over the country report that joblessness is often followed by diminished self-esteem, a crumbling of the former worker's personality, alcoholism and drug addiction, increased spousal and child abuse and family disintegration.

Inner-city families are devastated. Futureless children roam the streets doing drug deals, making war on each other or making babies either to prove manhood or to find love. The disintegration of stable, promising and nurturing frameworks for children is the most painful aspect of the abandonment of the inner city and of the contempt we then heap on the people that our ways of life and our government policies have trapped there.

Yet no social program can do for children what a family functioning at least moderately well can do. There is nothing more essential for family formation, and some hope of family stability, than at least one job held by an adult member that provides a living at something better than poverty levels.

When I think of these problems, I think of three little black children who attended a funeral in Holly Springs, Miss., back in 1906. Their mother had died. Their grandparents had been born in slavery, and their father was an unskilled laborer, not known for his responsibility toward family and work. The year 1906 was at the very worst of the period when the rights granted blacks just after the Civil War were being stripped from them. These three, one a babe in arms, were children at risk, as we might say today.

Their deceased mother's sister and uncle-by-marriage decided to take the children to Minnesota and to raise them in their home. Their uncle had a steady job working on railroad trains. He did it well, and was a strong, proud man. He brought the values of discipline and hard work from his job into his home. He instilled those values in the children, he was raising and he gave them pride. His job provided the opportunity for his wife's loving and nurturing nature to do its work on the children in security and stability. His job gave the family a place in a community of workers, and it gave the children a sense of a broader world and a solid future that could be attained by work and discipline.

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