Time for a Change

Donations have poured in to Catholic Charities, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. And, from what I can see, the complaints about federal spending have centered for the most part on whether the politicians are going overboard in their generosity with the taxpayers’ money, not on whether we have a responsibility to help the victims of the storm.

The line that you hear over and over again is that the country has to “do the right thing,” but not give millions of dollars to corrupt politicians to waste on pork barrel projects. Even the angry social Darwinist callers on the right-wing talk shows are pulling their punches this time round. Everyone seems to agree that we have a responsibility to help our fellow citizens in this time of need.

But there is another theme moving toward center stage that is problematic. A consensus is emerging in media and government circles that Katrina has forced us to confront the reality of a “black underclass” that we have “swept under the rug” all these years, a “permanent underclass” that needs help to recover, not just from the impact of this hurricane, but also from the “cycle of poverty” that relegates them to “second-class citizenship”; that society has a moral responsibility to open the door to the mainstream of American life for this disadvantaged segment of our population. We are being told that we cannot shrug our shoulders at the plight of all these unmarried young women with young children seemingly doomed to lives of poverty and despair; that we have to “do something.”

The question is: What? Imagine for a moment a scenario in which the federal government brought together representatives from the US Bishops' Campaign for Human Development, the Catholic Worker movement and Jesse Jackson’s and Al Sharpton’s organizations — and then promised them federal funding for whatever programs they came up with to solve the problem of the American black underclass.

What might the civil rights and poverty activists propose? You know as well as I do: more financial assistance to mothers without husbands to help them pay for food and housing, more money for their children’s schools to provide them with a good education from pre-school through graduate school, more affirmative action programs to help undo the “legacy of slavery,” free medical care, government-provided job training and family counseling, free clinics to help those afflicted with a dependency on illegal drugs. You get the point. They would ask for more spending on all the things the country has been doing since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society Program.

Is my point that the Great Society programs have been a failure? Not necessarily. It can be argued that large numbers of the modern black middle class escaped poverty by taking advantage of federal poverty programs. The point just now is only that the availability of federal poverty programs has not been the answer for the black underclass everyone is focusing on in the wake of Katrina. What Sharpton and Jackson and Catholic poverty activists would propose is more spending on what has not worked.

There is a need for fresh thinking on this topic. Recent data released by the Census Bureau could be the catalyst to make that happen. Not that the data will make any difference to Sharpton, Jackson and left-wing Catholic ideologues. They are committed to an ever-expanding federal government as the only answer to poverty. Indeed, I think it fair to say that only lifetime employment in government-guaranteed jobs at what they consider a “living wage” would satisfy the poverty activists — some form of socialism, to be direct. But there is the hope that those not wedded to these ideological predispositions will take notice of what the Census Bureau has revealed.

Here are the figures (taken from a recent syndicated column by Terence Jeffrey): In 2004, the bureau’s statistics show that only 6.4 percent of Americans in married-couple families lived below the poverty level. There was some difference between black families and white families in this regard, but not a large one: 9.9 percent of blacks in married-couple families lived below the poverty level, in comparison to 6 percent of whites. In contrast, 30.5 percent of Americans who lived in a household headed by a woman without a husband lived in poverty.

Children? Only 9 percent of the children in the country under 18 who lived in married-couple families were below the poverty level last year. In contrast, 41.8 percent of those who lived in a household headed by a woman without a husband present in the home lived in poverty. It was even worse for children under 5: last year, 53.8 percent of those who lived in a household without a husband present lived in poverty. The figures were basically the same for white and black children in this category. 52 percent of white children under 5 who lived in fatherless households lived in poverty; 58.1 percent of black.

The picture that emerges is clear. More federal spending will not solve the problem of the American underclass, black or white. What is needed is a spiritual revival, a return to traditional values, a reinvigoration of traditional family life, an end to the promiscuity promoted by the 1960s counterculture and the attack on marriage promoted by extremists in the feminist movement.

Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell are disparaged by black activists as “Uncle Toms.” Williams and Sowell are grown-ups; they don’t need me to fight that battle for them. But whatever one thinks of Sowell and Williams, there is a fact that the two of them stress that cannot be denied. The numbers are there. In the 1940s and 1950s, black families were as stable as white families in this country. Illegitimacy was relatively rare in both the black and white communities. The disintegration of the black family began with the rise of the welfare state and its subsidies for unmarried women with children.

Which means that we cannot solve the problem of the black underclass by throwing more money at the poverty programs that are a major source of the problems which that underclass faces. It is time for something else, for a religious resurgence, led by black preachers more concerned about preaching morality, responsibility, self-discipline, and family duties to their flocks than with expanding the welfare state.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at fitzpatrijames@sbcglobal.net.

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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