VERNON JORDAN of the National Urban League speaks persuasively of the great economic strains on black Americans. He cites the possibility of another recession later this year, "hitting a black community that has not yet recovered from the last one." His target was not President Carter. But the Urban League's report on conditions among blacks will inevitably become part of the rising controversy over the Carter budget that will appear on Monday. The budget will proposed severe restrictions on federal spending and that, in the conventional terms of budget debates, will raise the risk of a recession. How should Mr. Carter reply to Mr. Jordan?
There is a certain danger that the president, who knows his budget all to well, weill choose to defend it in the technical and arithmetical terms that he might better leave to his budget director. The president might more usefully turn to the larger aspects of the thing. The other day Mr. Carter touched in passing on the truth that inflation does disproportionate damages to the poor and vulnerable. No one in this country has a more urgent interest in a lower inflation rate than the people for whom Mr. Jordan speaks. People who own their own homes can watch complacently as values rise, for mortgage payments stay low. It's the renters who feel the brunt of the changes overtaking the housing market.
In the present circumstances, it's questionable that any government or any budget could stave off recessions altogether. To try it would mean a plicy of accelerated spending; as the inflation rose, it would make trouble for the dollar abroad while credit began to shrink at hime, pitching the economy into every severe trouble. Wise policy can influence the timing and the dimensions of recession, but nobody can guarantee that an economy will expand continuously.
But there's more to the argument than that. Mr. Jordan is quite right in saying that blacks suffer more than most Americans in recessions. The unemployment rate for blacks is generally twice that for whites, and, when employment turns down, the impact among black workers is doubly harsh. But unfortunately economic growth alone is not a cure for all of the disparties of income and opportunity with which Mr. Jordan is concerned.
Over the past two decades, the American economy has expanded enormously and yet, throughout those years, the unemployment rate among black adolescents has risen steadily; unemployment among white adolescents, in contrast, has changed very little. For blacks in their late teens, the unemployment rate has been hovering close to 40 percent ever since the last recession, unaffected by the recovery. The inability of so many young blacks to acquire job experience helps explain, of course, high unemployment and low wages as they grow older.The evil is real, and none of the answers to it so far has worked very well. But attempting to cure it by stoking up the economy is demonstrably ineffective.
A lot of the social programs that Mr. Jordan supports are going to be frozen, or even cut, in Mr. Carter's budget. It is possible to argue how the cuts ought to be distributed. But under present conditions, it's difficult to dispute the need to cut somewhere. All of those programs are paid for by dollars, after all, and it hardly makes sense to increase those dollars when the result is only to depreciate their value. It's not the number of dollars going into the social programs that counts, but rather what they can accomplish when they get there.