Skip to main content

Below the Bottom Line

ISSUE:  Summer 1983

The first full-dress, generally sympathetic biography of the 40th president of the United States is prefaced by the author’s declaration: “. . . I like and respect Ronald Reagan while remaining skeptical that his actions will achieve the results he intends.” A considerable majority of Americans, if we are to believe the polls, have shared that view—and many still do, even though the election results at midterm indicated that the amiable Californian’s personal popularity was no longer impervious to declining confidence in his programs and policies.

Mr. Reagan’s remarkable career is the sum of such contradictions. His political appeal is populist, yet his life style is unabashedly elitist and his philosophy archconservative; he came to fame as a crusader against the Left, but the rightwing ideologues who hailed him as a candidate have found him less than satisfactory in office. “His ignorance was his armor, shielding him from the harsh realities which might have discouraged some of his boldest initiatives . . . ,” Lou Cannon writes in Reagan. “Reaganomics was less a program than a joyous secular theology not susceptible to examination by statistical data. Reagan believed in Reaganomics and was convinced that his untried combination of programs would lead to a new prosperity. The Reagan inner circle believed in Reagan. And the others, whether believers or not, went along.”

Under the circumstances it is understandable that there has not yet been a coherent political debate on the radical changes foreshadowed by the administration’s shifts in budgetary priority. But, whether they hailed the new dispensation or deplored it, most economists agreed with the Nobel laureate, James Tobin, who saw “a conservative counterrevolution in the theory, ideology and practice of economic policy. . . . Existing institutions, commitments and “safety nets” can’t be rapidly dismantled, but the message is clear enough: Inequality of opportunity is no longer a concern of the federal government.”

Mr. Reagan could hardly fault that assessment. It fairly summarizes the objectives set forth in his first State of the Union message under the rubric of a “new federalism.” Touted as a means of getting the government off the backs of the people, the concept had resonance with the widespread anti-Washington feeling that brought both the president and his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, to office. And, of course, recasting of fiscal and budgetary policy was required to meet unprecedented deficits, curb inflation, and bring down double-digit interest rates.

Whatever efficacy it may have had as a vote-getter, however, the new federalism ran into the same sort of difficulty that marked the encounter between Reaganomics and economic reality. The proposed reallocation of powers is part of the same secular theology, and it found few converts among the state and local officials who were in the best position to appraise the practical consequences of imposing upon them full responsibility for maintaining and advancing the general welfare.

Here Mr. Reagan’s vision ran counter to all the lessons to be learned from the evolution of our peculiarly American institutions. The nation had a hundred and fifty years of experience with the old “states rights” federalism he calls new, and its modification was not a triumph of leftist ideology, but a response to the dispersed system’s failure to meet the demographic realities of an industrialized urban society. The communications revolution has long since erased the original significance of the states’ boundaries; and, as political entities, they are no longer relevant to the economic interests of their residents, linked as they are to national and, in important respects, international markets.

The original guarantee of a substantial measure of local sovereignty was the subject of a great debate at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, but the actual reservation of powers was dictated in large part by a controlling demographic factor of that day—the concentration of an enslaved black population in the lower seaboard colonies. The intractable issue of slavery could not be accommodated under universal application of the libertarian doctrine proclaimed by the founders. The insistence on local autonomy in domestic affairs, as elaborated in defense of the peculiar institution, brought on civil war; as modified by the constitutional amendments that followed, the limitation on federal authority still permitted the states to deprive the black minority of rights presumably guaranteed to all citizens.

In the 1950’s the palpable injustice of the legalized segregation sheltered by the federal-state division of powers provided the catalyst for the Supreme Court’s sweeping revision of public policy in the area of race relations. But the states rights concept already had been undermined by the practical requirements of repairing a national economy shattered by depression; the New Deal reforms that restored political stability by guaranteeing the economic security of individual Americans grew out of recognition that only the central government could command the necessary resources. The “affirmative action” programs that followed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s desegregation mandates were an extension of that policy. It was evident that two centuries of debilitating racial discrimination had left most blacks unprepared for competition with whites in a market-oriented economy. That condition would not be changed by simply providing federal protection for the exercise of their civil liberties.


It is ironic that affirmative action has become the bête noire of men who label themselves conservative. “The ideal of capitalism in a democracy,” Professor Tobin noted, “is a fair race from an even start.” This was the analogy Lyndon Johnson used when he launched the Office of Economic Opportunity to provide a means, as he put it, of bringing up to the starting line those who had been held back by economic privation and inferior education.

The man who provided the rationale for Johnson’s “war on poverty” was not a starry-eyed social planner but an economist seeking to limit the growth of what is now denounced as welfarism. Walter Heller, then chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, contended that the nation could no longer afford to deal with poverty under existing practice, foreseeing that the economic and social costs would continue to mount if the welfare system simply provided subsistence for the socially unfit and encouraged them to multiply. Instead, he proposed that the primary effort be aimed at “salvaging the salvageable”—primarily the young—by training and motivating them to become productive members of society. The ultimate effect would be to reduce the cost of welfare and increase productivity and the yield from the tax base. In his 1964 State of the Union address President Johnson presented the program to Congress in balance-sheet terms: “One thousand dollars invested in salvaging an unemployable youth can return forty thousand dollars or more in his lifetime.”

The Reagan administration rejected this proposition out of hand, and, as a result, has found itself back where Heller started. Limiting the government’s role to providing minimum subsistence for those defined as “truly needy” means treating the poverty-stricken as objects of charity; the cost, coupled with the expenditures required to maintain the Social Security programs that provide Medicare and pensions for the elderly, can only mean a continuing and likely increasing welfare burden. Under the new policy there is no investment of public funds in the expectation of return; it is, instead, the grudging discharge of a public duty, which the president would like to turn back to the states if he could.


Those in the Reagan administration who attempt to translate the president’s flights of laissez-faire fancy into economic theory contend that the welfare problem will automatically be taken care of once tax cuts in the upper income brackets release a flood of investment capital and restore a pattern of economic growth sufficient to provide employment for all those able and willing to work. But by midterm three hundred leading citizens drawn from the very top drawer of the American business establishment, including former Treasury secretaries of both parties, had taken newspaper ads to denounce “supply side” economics as an egregious failure and demand that the administration change course.

Unemployment had replaced inflation as the burning issue, and outside the White House no one of consequence any longer professed faith that market forces alone could provide jobs for more than eleven million unemployed. If the presidential rhetoric indicated that his ideas were still set in concrete, his aides were busy working out compromises with Congress that would use federal funds for what Mr. Reagan still contemptuously referred to as “make-work.” There was no place on this improvised agenda for discussion of the hard core of structural unemployment that afflicts the 25 million Americans who were trapped below the poverty line before the current recession began.

The unreality of the president’s doctrinaire commitment to localism and private enterprise is nowhere better demonstrated than in his reiterated contention that the unemployed can always vote with their feet—that is, depart from shrinking job markets in the older industrial centers and migrate to the growth areas of the Sun Belt. Aside from the fact that it callously ignores the effect of such involuntary relocation upon the individuals and communities involved, this prescription simply does not accord with current employment patterns. The only prospective long-term growth is in high technology industries, which have little use for the skills acquired in the older manufacturing enterprises and, by their nature, are far less labor intensive and are expected to become even less so as the introduction of robots brings on the next phase of automation.

Most of those who have remained unemployed even in periods of sustained growth have already voted once with their feet, or their parents did. These were the blacks and poor whites who wound up in the inner cities of the major metropolitan areas after they were displaced from the land by the mechanization of agriculture in the agrarian South. There they were joined by black and Hispanic migrants from the Caribbean Basin and Latin America who also were qualified only for the kind of unskilled labor that is steadily diminishing under the impact of technological change. These unassimilated urban poor accounted for the majority of those the 1980 census located in what has been called the Other America, the terra incognita below a povery line reckoned at $4,190 per annum for a single person, or $8,410 for a family of four.

The head count found that the certifiably poverty-stricken now account for 13 percent of the population; this breaks down to 8. 9 percent of the whites, 30. 9 percent of the blacks, and 21. 6 percent of the Hispanics—although the latter figure would be higher if millions of illegal immigrants could be countedacks, as they always have been, remain the most conspicuous members of the culture of poverty. In 1980 36.3 percent of blacks between the ages of 16 and 19 were out of school and unemployed; by August 1981, as the pared-down Reagan budget began to cast a shadow across the economy, the total had risen to 50. 7 percent, the highest figure recorded in the 28 years since the Department of Labor began breaking down statistics by age.

These urban poor are the residue of the discrimination that long afflicted the native black population, and to a lesser degree Spanish-speaking newcomers—an underclass left behind when constitutional reinterpretation opened the way for a third of the blacks to achieve middle-class status, and allowed another third to find a place above the poverty line as “working poor.” The young blacks huddled in the worst of the inner city ghettoes are members of the third generation of welfare clients; most have never known their fathers or grandfathers to be employed, if they knew them at all. The disintegration of family structure that now characterizes the underclass has been marked by the disappearance of the last bastion of stability, the traditional black matriarch, the mother or grandmother or aunt whose strength and dignity sheltered an extended family. Such as these once imposed discipline and instilled ambition in the young within their reach, but the very upward mobility they inspired has removed from the ghettoes most of the younger women who saw them as role models.

An increasing number of those with nominal responsibility for nurturing ghetto children are children themselves—victims of what the activist preacher Jesse Jackson calls “an epidemic of teen-age pregnancy.” The result can be seen in the fact that more than half the black children born in 1980 were illegitimate. Analyzing the situation in the District of Columbia, where the total stood at 60 percent, the Washington Post found that 95 percent of these were borne by teenage mothers, whose progeny account for 90 percent of low birth-weight babies—those who run a high risk of health problems that harm mental and physical development. The end product of this kind of casual parentage can be seen in the fact that 75 percent of the black teen-agers in the District’s juvenile detention facilities were themselves illegitimate.


Unfortunately, the mere recitation of the brute facts about the nation’s pockets of poverty continues to agitate those overly imbued with the Protestant ethic, reinforcing their conviction that welfare dependency is, if not sinful, at least an indication of inferior moral character. The worst thing about this attitude is not that it is uncharitable but that it tends to divert attention from the fact that such dependency is indeed a social evil, one that has grown to the first magnitude. This diversionary effect is inherent in the kind of social Darwinism advocated by President Reagan as the only cure for the blight of poverty. This may very well reflect the president’s honest conviction, but it also serves as an excuse for simply ignoring the deep-seated causes, and consequences, of what has come to be called a chronic “urban crisis.”

Any approach to dealing with the pathological erosion at the base of society must take into account the demographic changes produced by the ongoing technological revolution. The beginning fact is that much of the natural selection prescribed by the social Darwinians has already taken place. When the institutional barriers of legalized segregation were lowered a generation ago the growing black middle class moved rapidly into the mainstream, and at that level American society has achieved an effective degree of racial integration. In the process the old doctrine of white supremacy, which provided the rationale for legal segregation, lost respectability; the pollsters find that less than 15 percent of whites now profess to consider blacks racially inferior. Commitment to an open society, in theory at least, is proclaimed by the most conservative politicians. Even while urging policies denounced as ruinous by traditional supporters of civil rights, Mr. Reagan wrote to congressional leaders: “I share with you and your colleagues an unalterable opposition to racial discrimination in any form. Such practices are repugnant to all that our nation and its citizens hold dear and I believe this repugnance should be plainly reflected in all our laws.” He and his associates bridle at the suggestion that Reaganomics is tainted by racism.

This tempering by prejudicial white attitudes, unfortunately, is irrelevant to the plight of the socially unfit who make up most of the underclass—those who are unemployable not because of their current circumstances but because of their lack of inner resources. It is possible to see these coming; the odds are long that an adult who passes through the teens without acquiring the capacity and motivation required by a regular job will end up a ward of government, as a convicted criminal, or a disability case. These functional illiterates are not only without marketable skills but are effectively without self-imposed restraints on their behavior, and as long as they remain at large they constitute a threat to the larger society. Hence crime has become an urgent local issue in every major metropolitan area.

Attorney General William French Smith concedes that the spreading epidemic of violence is “out of control,” and the FBI’s statistics show that its primary source is the pool of unemployed school dropouts in their teens or early twenties who commit most of the killings, muggings, rapes, holdups, and burglaries. For the first time since the post-World War II period many homicides are gang-related, often involving shoot-outs between the black and Hispanic teen-agers who stake out their turf in the worst of the ghettos, Others are characterized as random, which is particularly frightening, since, having no evident cause, they are not affected by the usual precautions. The number of blacks and Hispanics among both criminals and victims is disproportionately high, and—the most alarming aspect to middle-class whites— violent encounters have become commonplace outside the ghettos.

The young criminals produced by the black and Hispanic underclass reduce to irrelevance much of the public debate inspired by the mounting crime statistics. They cannot be absolved, as leftist cant would have it, on the ground that the past injustices of a racist society have shaped their destiny. They may be entitled to compassion, but they constitute a clear and present danger, and there is no reason to believe that, once hardened, they will respond to reform of the criminal justice system—whether it be by providing tougher laws, judges, and prisons or by making the system more humane.

The irrelevance is doubly marked in the case of the predictable response of the Reagan administration, which calls for beefing up the criminal justice system while eliminating the federal funding this would require. Criminologists point out that it is impossible to measure the advance effectiveness of the threat of harsh punishment since there is no way to count those restrained by fear from committing a crime. But deterrence obviously does not work in the case of those who have already served time in even the toughest prisons; the recidivism rate has undercut the once prevalent belief that a significant number of criminals can be rehabilitated, and the effort has been largely abandoned.

Penitentiaries have become warehouses where predators are isolated from their potential victims, and the cost of bed, board, and security—on the national average, $50,000 per cell for construction, $17,000 per annum for maintenance—is a primary source of pressure for reducing the universal overcrowding through plea bargaining, suspended sentences, and parole. Whatever merit there may be in the contention that unrealistic judges and dilatory defense attorneys have perverted the court system to favor criminals over their victims, the fact is that most freed offenders are returned to the streets because there is no place to put them—and the United States already imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized nations except South Africa and the Soviet Union.

Some of the toughest cops and prosecutors agree that any effective preventive approach to the crime problem will have to be undertaken outside the criminal justice system. Thomas Coughlin, New York’s corrections commissioner, observes that concentration on punishment simply distracts attention from the social factors that produce the inmates of his overcrowded prisons—”unemployment, poor housing and a nonexistent family structure.” Judge Paul Egly, who presided over the litigation that marked Los Angeles’ convulsive experience with court-ordered school desegregation, found that most of the underclass young are simply in transit from one warehouse to another. In the days when he was hearing criminal cases, he said, he used to wonder why so many of the defendants were blacks or Hispanics: “I think I have learned the answer in the four years I’ve been listening to the Los Angeles [school] case. In my opinion there is a direct correlation between the ability of the child to compete in our society and the crime rate. . . . We’ve said these people should be warehoused until they’re 16 or so and then forget it. When we end up, we have produced a large number of children who cannot function in our society.”


With the conventional family structure virtually nonexistent in the underclass, and vastly altered throughout society by the permissive mores than now prevail, the burden of acculturating the young is devolving upon the educational system at a time when the public schools are under attack from both left and right, and their popular support has eroded to the point where many politicians are reconsidering the longstanding American commitment to education as the ultimate social panacea.

In addition to his effort to dismantle the Department of Education and eliminate most federal school appropriations, President Reagan’s devotion to localism and private enterprise embraces support for tax credits to reimburse parents for payment of tuition to private schools. If he succeeds in putting through this departure from past policy, the result will go far beyond the professed intention of relieving the burden of taxes for those who choose to pay the cost of educating their children in traditional parochial schools or exclusive private academies; it also will spur further growth of the schools of doubtful quality that have sprung up solely to provide a refuge for white children fleeing the deteriorating public system.

The freedom of choice cited in defense of this proposal obviously would not extend to a welfare family or one of the working poor. The result would be to consign the children of the underclass to schools generally recognized as inferior and left devoid of the middle-class patronage upon which the public system has always depended. The ultimate effect would be to reinstitutionalize the racial separation the Supreme Court found to be detrimental to the learning process, and, by extension, to society as a whole.

In the major metropolitan centers the situation is typified by that cited by Jimmy Breslin in the New York Daily News:

In 1957, New York’s public schools were 60 percent white. During 1980, only 27. 8 percent of a total attendance of 963,000 were white. . . . At this rate, in five years the schools, and perhaps the city, will belong to everyone who is not white and the word “minority” will have the same meaning in New York that it has in Zimbabwe.

Any other discussion about the city at this time is merely a diversion. The calamity for all is that a school system of blacks and Latinos is one that at best will be ignored and at worst will probably be wrecked by government, which remains white.

To take seriously the proposal to terminate the central government’s concern for this condition in the name of a “new” federalism requires a peculiarly limited view of contemporary society, one that seems to be fading along with the president’s personal popularity. But, even if the widening gap between promise and performance brings down President Reagan’s administration after one term, as it did his Democratic predecessor’s, his radical approach has already forced reconsideration of some of the assumptions upon which government social programs have been based for the last half century. The moderate Democrats and Republicans who alternated in the places of power largely ignored the long-running theoretical debate between laissez-faire capitalists and neo-Marxist populists—and could afford to do so since prior to 1980 neither attracted significant support beyond the extremes of the political spectrum. The truly new federalism that evolved in Washington out of compromise and expediency created a mixed economy with its rough edges softened by welfare dispensations and entitlements.

In the years of undisputed American military supremacy and substantial, if erratic, economic growth, this patchwork met the basic needs of most of the citizenry. But the collapse of the centrist administration of Jimmy Carter, and the tide of protest that brought the rightist Ronald Reagan to power, clearly mark the end of an era. Ideology aside, it is evident that the existing structures and processes of government no longer are regarded as acceptable by most Americans.

As the Democrats faced the prospect of resuming effective control of Congress after the mid-term elections, it was evident that the party leadership was operating in what amounted to a theoretical vacuum. No one believes that public demands and expectations can be met by simply reinstating the social programs the Reagan administration seeks to abandon. By common consent, most of these clearly need fundamental recasting. More than a decade ago one of the most perceptive observers of the American scene, the late Robert Maynard Hutchins, defined the emerging political dilemma:

No existing theory of politics, economics, society or international relations can explain or account for the facts of contemporary life. Our situation has changed too fast for our ideas, and so our ideas have degenerated into slogans. . . . Most of us retain individualistic, liberal ideas, but we live in a bureaucratic culture. It remains to be seen whether our ideals can be made applicable to our culture, or whether we can make our culture conform to our ideals.

The outdating of ideas, however, does not necessarily imply abandonment of the values out of which they evolved—those that have provided Americans with a generally accepted concept of the common good and a more or less self-enforcing code of ethics. It is not surprising that citizens of all classes respond favorably to President Reagan’s evocation of the sanctity of home and family, the rewards of individual effort, the virtues of neighborliness and volunteerism, and the duty to defend the beloved community against enemies foreign and domestic. Our traditional values have been put to new tests, but they continue to be honored in the abstract even by those whose life style seems to indicate that they have been abandoned in practice. The hedonistic philosophy vaguely formulated by the counterculture is still unacceptable to almost all Americans, not merely to those who profess to speak for a fundamentalist Moral Majority. Equally unacceptable, when it is measured against the reality of their daily lives, is the alternative summed up by Ronald Reagan’s insistence that government is the source of our problems and therefore cannot provide solutions.

If the urbanized culture produced by rapid technological change precludes a counterrevolutionary return to the past, the checks and balances of the political system still militate against a revolutionary leap forward. One of the more thoughtful of the current crop of Southern Democratic senators, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, has defined the challenge facing his party upon its presumptive return to power: “We don’t want to walk away from the past, and can’t avoid the hard work of sorting out the past.” The sorting out as it relates to welfare will be crucial.

In the process of evolving its own version of the welfare state the United States has eliminated or greatly reduced extreme forms of deprivation and made considerable progress in deinstitutionalizing racial and class discrimination. When the transformation began, the president who inaugurated it, Franklin Roosevelt, found “one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed.” Over the succeeding fifty years that category has been reduced by two-thirds. But the intractable residue of poverty that remains is clearly beyond the reach of the process that eased the plight of most of President Roosevelt’s constituents; even if there is a pronounced upturn in the economy there is no place for the underclass in the boats . that, as President Kennedy put it, would be lifted by a rising tide of economic growth.

While the underclass is by no means all black, the real and presumed correlation of poverty, crime, and race is still such as to shape any political approach to dealing with the problem. “In the end there is no escaping the questions of race and crime,” Charles Silberman wrote in Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice. “To say this is to risk, almost to guarantee giving offense. . . . The truth is too terrible on all sides, and we are all too accustomed to the soothing euphemisms and inflammatory rhetoric with which the subject is cloaked.”

At best, the laissez-faire capitalism and outmoded federalism President Reagan espouses add up to a policy of “benign neglect,” as pundit Patrick Moynihan termed it when Richard Nixon unsuccessfully embarked on a similar tack. But there is growing evidence that such a retreat from federal responsibility is no longer a viable political option. Mr. Reagan’s soothing euphemisms have been rejected by the black leadership, and there is a measurable rise in inflammatory rhetoric. Asked if he foresaw a return to the Long Hot Summers of mass ghetto rioting that scarred a hundred American cities in the sixties, former Mayor John V. Lindsay of New York replied: “What you’re seeing now are riots in slow motion. Small armies of hustlers are roaming the streets, aged 13 to 28, mostly male, mostly nonwhite, functionally illiterate, disconnected from anything anybody understands as being American life.”

The political leadership, confronting an electorate beset by economic uncertainty, has moved away from consideration of these problems in terms of justice or compassion. But the underlying issue will not be put down, for it is nothing less than the urgent need for restoring that level of domestic tranquility the founders considered essential to a self-governing republic.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading