The administration's plan for cutting the budget, the rush of congressmen of both parties to jump on the budget-slashing bandwagon and the new wave of hostility toward affirmative action and federal regulatory efforts place blacks and poor people in jeopardy.
Despite the president's sincere effort to make the budget cuts equitable, it is clear they will fall most heavily on the poor. That is inevitable, for the poor are most dependent on federal programs for their basic needs. It is impossible to equate slashes in synfuels or academic research with trims in food stamps.
Even modest cuts in social programs will have a devastating impact on many poor families. Pennies taken from the poor hurt more than dollars taken from the wealthy. The relatively moderate sacrifices demanded of the affluent or of corporations will be compensated for by tax cuts.
And the problem is compounded by the likelihood that once the president's budget reaches the Hill, Congress will go after poor people's programs, with all the sensitivity of a rampaging bull. Congress' predictable response to the economic crisis is to round up the usual suspects -- the poor -- despite the reality that millions of Americans continue to be hostages to poverty and discrimination and need compassionate government action.
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the battle of the budget is that there has been so little battle. There has been, instead, a deafening silence surrounding prospective cuts in programs for the poor: silence concerning the specifics of budget cuts and silence about prospective future steps such as ending key social programs altogether or, almost as bad, turning them over to the states.
Nor has there been any creative public dialogue so far about the assumptions governing the budget decisions underlying the administrative's economic policies.
Are those hefty tax cut really desirable, given that they will largely be funded by cuts in vital social and urban programs? Does private sector productivity really depend on fresh tax incentives, given the rising savings rate and increased availability of investment funds? Is it not better to balance the budget by removing the enormous tax expenditures granted the affluent, expenditures that far outstrip budgetary spending on programs for the poor? Will the planned massive and inflationary increases in military spending really enhance national security or can that security be achieved through other means?
Such gut questions are simply not being asked by liberal congressmen intimidated by a mistaken reading of the election results, by officials blinkered by conservative ideology and even by supporters of social programs. They are either in disarray, scrambling to save some pet program, or prone to a despair that says, "Let them do what they want and fail; then we can pick up the pieces." Such a course amounts to complicity in spreading misery.
So it is clear that the black community faces the awesome task of raising the questions others ignore, demanding correct answers to them and galvanizing a coalition of like-minded Americans to protect the interests of the poor, the vast majority of whom, we most continually point out, are white.
It is unfortunate that blacks are now forced into a defensive position, battling to hold on to core programs and to stave off attacks on affirmative action, desegregated schools, voting rights, the minimum wage and too many others.
We have no illusions -- we may win and lose some. But there is no alternative to digging the trenches and refusing to allow 20 years of slow, painful gains to be swept away in a reactionary blitzkrieg.
A second task facing the black community is, to the extent possible, to expand community-based efforts to develop the ghetto economy, improve health, housing and education and deal creatively with problems of crime and social dislocation that will be the inevitable result of withdrawl of key federal programs.
Self-help is nothing new for blacks; we have been doing it from the darkest days of slavery and oppression. Many so-called "federal" programs are actually local self-help efforts funded by Washington. An expansion of such efforts will depend on private and voluntary sector assistance to a degree not available before.
Finally, the black community will explore creative "conservative" solutions with the administration. So long as it does not replace present urban programs, the Urban Enterprise Zone idea is worth pursuing. Incentives for building and maintaining low-income housing and national housing counseling programs should find a receptive ear in a conservative era. And replacing the welfare system while reforming the tax system by blending both into a Credit Income Tax would create a viable income-maintenance system. The CIT embodies conservative ideas such as work incentives, less government interference in people's lives and a shrunken bureaucracy.
So the coming months will find blacks circling the wagons to protect programs essential to our communities while sending patrols out into the new conservative no man's land with creative new ideas for extending the limited gains we've won in the past.