BALTIMORE MAYOR William Donald Schaefer had come to the joint hearing of House subcommittees on crime and unemployment to talk about his city'sneeds. But with a little help from Rep. Sam Blakely Hall Jr. (D-Tex.), it soon became a debate.
Hall told Schaefer that he saw no connection between unemployment and crime, and he cited as an example his belief that there had been no appreciable reduction in crime in Baltimore despite federal funding to jobs programs there.
"Instead," he said, "we've only perpetuated a 'gimme' mentality."
The silver-haired mayor responded with sensitivity. "I'm talking about unemployed persons who live in one room with no heat -- people with no food," he said. "It's our job as elected officials to see to it that this people have skills and a means of making a living."
Hall argued that some inner-city communities "would never be operable again."
Again, Schaefer countered. "I refuse to give up and say any community will never make it. Now maybe I'm a dreamer, but I'm convinced that the day I give up on a neighborhood is the day I should go."
Schaefer's predicament is an example of what a lot of us liberals feel these days when we are confronted with the conservative perspective. We know it is axiomatic that a connection exists between poverty, crime and unemployment, yet we cannot show empirically any absolute cause or relationship -- anymore than the conservatives can show conclusively that there are no connections.
It can be argued that liberal thinking may be a little soft, but it can also be argued that conservative thinking is dangerously isolated from reality. Unemployment, after all, is an immensely complex problem of global proportions. In America, we see it play out hardest among poor, young black men. Half of them can't find respectable work, and in many cities half the crime is committed by such youths.
Such correlations may not come with statistics that show a cause-and-effect relationship. But that doesn't mean there is no link. There is one factor linking unemployment and crime, for instance, which gets too little attention. Unemployed people, whatever their station in life, don't feel good aboutthemselves. And unhappiness frequently turns to downright bitterness.
"If you see somebody out there on the street and you ain't got no job and you have things you need, you've gotta take a hustle -- do anything -- rob, steal, hurt somebody to get it," said a black teen-ager in Alexandria last week as his cassette radio played a tune called "Drop the Bomb."
Said another young man as he sat in the 14th Street job service office waiting to see an employment counselor: "You see something you want and can't get -- it hurts a little bit." But he insisted, "I'm not into stealin.' "
I left those encounters feeling I'd been privy to the critical insightfulness of the powerless. They seem to see something those of us in the middle sometimes miss. I went to ask about whatever crimes they had committed and they wanted to ask about the "crimes" that were being committed against them.
Which crimes should we be considering here?
The folks at the bottom feel a particular bitterness in their state of joblessness. It is the bitterness that comes from seeing the guarantees like Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, school lunches being threatened. As Mayor Schaefer argued, the answer is not across-the-board cuts.
Today, the new tactic used in the conservative assault on federal programs aiding the unemployed is called "deny." Deny any connection between poverty and crime. Deny any connection between unemployment and crime. Blame it instead on inferior human beings or the "social thinkers" of the 1950s and '60s who thought that government spending could solve problems.
But it is a high-risk tactic and the repercussions are often visible and far-reaching -- look at the riots in Britain last summer. In the past, social unrest has been cushioned by an array of programs, something that may soon be missing. But while I don't think jobs should merely be a smokescreen to prevent riots, the sentimental view that crime can be blamed on "human predators" -- as Ronald Reagan says -- is not only illogical.
It is also extremely dangerous.