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Candidates bypass ghetto for "must carry' suburbs

Published Oct. 12, 2005

The presidential campaign trail hugs beltways and bypasses these days. Not even for Democrats does the road to the White House run through the ghetto anymore.

The photo opportunity outside an abandoned tenement, once a ritual, has become the stuff of vintage newsreel footage.

Trying to muster some outrage in this year's New York primary, Democrat Jerry Brown was reduced to saying, "You have as many empty buildings in Harlem as you did in 1976 when Jimmy Carter went up there."

Brown was speaking in lower Manhattan at the time.

"I would say there are two reasons why the problems of the inner cities are being ignored," said Doug Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute, a moderate think tank.

"First, there are no answers that anyone's got. We've tried many things and there is little confidence that we can do better.

"Second, inner cities tend to be ethnic and racial minorities. And they vote Democratic regardless of what happens. The only issue is turnout, so there's no competition for their vote."

Race also serves to keep the area off-limits, especially when the subject is crime.

"It's so closely interwoven with race that nobody wants to touch it," said James Fyfe, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia. "It's easy to avoid it."

This year not even the deadliest riot in decades could push inner cities into the presidential debate. Suburbs are now the "must carry" precincts, and all many voters want to know about the ghetto is which candidate will best keep its problems at a comfortable distance.

"I want thugs who take cars at gunpoint to stay in a cell so long that when they get out, they're too old to drive," President Bush declared last month after a wave of carjackings sent a shiver through commuters.

Some analysts are disappointed. Jack Meyer of the Washington-based New Directions for Policy group had sarcasm for Congress' sluggish response to the fires and mayhem of Los Angeles and for the contents of the riot bill Congress passed in October.

"Let's get a collection of Band-Aids, in most cases used Band-Aids, and see if we can't put them on the wound instead of maybe getting an antibiotic," he said.

But others say looking away from the inner city not only is natural, it's politically savvy. Speaking too earnestly about the neighborhoods that frighten most voters can make a candidate _ especially a Democrat _ look out of touch.

Better to take the problems of the inner city one at a time and call them by their own names rather than "the problems of the inner city," said Richard Nathan, who was research director on the Kerner Commission that investigated the causes of the 1967 riots.

"There are ways to help the cities without making that the banner you carry," Nathan said.

Which seems to be how the candidates see it, too.


The Bush and Clinton records actually complement one another on welfare.

As president, Bush says the federal government should clear the way for states to experiment with methods of weaning single-parent families from the dole.

And as a governor, Clinton put in place one of the first and more successful such experiments. Called Project Success, the Arkansas system boasts of moving 17,000 people from welfare to work in the last three years.

President Ronald Reagan singled out Clinton's contribution when signing the 1988 welfare reform act, which requires states to link job opportunity and education to welfare payments. (The program Florida put in place is called Project Independence.)

If elected, however, Clinton proposes to go much further. While removing incentives to remain on welfare, he would require welfare recipients to go to work after two years, if not in the private sector then to a community service job.

Ross Perot, the independent candidate, speaks generally about reforming welfare through "income incentives" in his book United We Stand. He makes no specific proposal.


The recent jump in the number of Americans living below the poverty line _ up to 14.2 percent from 13 percent in 1988 _ is blamed on the long and stubborn recession. The rate likely would drop if the economy picked up.

In the central cities, however, the poverty rate has risen much faster and stood at 19 percent in 1990. That's partly because only the poorest people are left behind by those who can afford to move elsewhere. But experts say economic growth should help them, too.

Candidate Perot agrees.

"A robust and expanding national economy could do more to improve the well-being of our cities than all the handouts ever conceived of," Perot writes.

All three candidates endorse enterprise zones, which aim to lure businesses to depressed areas by offering breaks on taxes and regulations. After being ignored for years both by Congress and the president, who nominally proposed them, the zones were included on a trial basis in the bill to rebuild Los Angeles after the riots.

Clinton's plan for cities emphasizes the importance of community involvement. He likes community development banks that make small loans to entrepreneurs in the inner city. And among the Democrat's proposals to expand low-income housing is praise for Tampa's Resurrection of Affordable Housing Program, which restores and sells condemned property to low-income buyers.

Clinton also proposes transferring 10 percent of government-owned housing to non-profit community groups to use for the homeless.

Bush, who spoke movingly of the plight of underprivileged children early in his term, has not consolidated his administration's positions into a package aimed at cities and their problems.

"The president has missed many golden opportunities to present his policies," said Robert Rector at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Asked for the president's position papers on poverty and the cities, the Bush/Quayle press office instead faxed an attack on Clinton's record: "Arkansas Is Not a Good Place for Kids."

Crime and drugs

Regarding crime, there is perception, and there is reality.

The reality is that violent crime has risen sharply, though mostly in the inner cities where both the criminals and the victims are poor.

The perception, however, is formed by spectacular crimes such as the suburban Washington carjacking that helped inspire federal legislation. Two black men commandeered a BMW, dragged the driver beside it until she was dead, then threw her baby into the street.

"As this kind of thing spreads and it starts to reach out as these kids become more mobile, you'll see people start to get more frightened," said Fyfe, a former New York City patrolman turned criminal justice scholar.

"The distinction between the fear of crime and your actual risk of victimization is important and must be addressed carefully," Fyfe said. And the odds of anyone being carjacked have been put at one in a million.

Except that in politics, perception is everything.

Nowhere does Clinton look more like a Republican than on crime. The Bush and Clinton positions mirror one another: more police, more prisons, increased federal assistance to local police.

Bush champions a crime bill that would mandate the death penalty for a wide variety of crimes. Clinton signs death warrants and has interrupted campaign swings to oversee executions.

"You really can't tell the public much that doesn't sound like capital punishment and building more prison cells," said Fyfe. "But building more prison cells is like solving the AIDS problem by building more hospices."

Clinton favors the Brady Bill, which would require a waiting period on handgun purchases. Bush opposes the bill. Perot does not say.

Perot would, however, mandate life sentences for anyone convicted a third time for a violent crime. In other cases he would make literacy and a marketable skill a condition of release from prison.

Perot also urges giving the federal drug czar authority over the assorted programs the drug czarnow only coordinates. Along with Clinton, Perot wants admission on demand to drug treatment centers.

Bush defends his drug control program, which includes a program known as "Weed and Seed." It calls for police weeding out drug dealers and street crime, then "seeding" the neighborhood with a variety of social services.

No wonder people avoid the inner city, said Nathan, the former Kerner Commission researcher.

"There's no constituency. It's dangerous. I don't want my daughter working in Bushwick" in Brooklyn, he said. "I'm sorry, but I don't."