In some ways, the debate raging between President Reagan and the civil rights establishment is a nostalgia contest. Reagan is remembering the wonderful post-war days of great economic growth (and massive discrimination). The civil rights leadership is teary- eyed over the 1960s, when black progress was a major priority of the national government (even while black demonstrators were getting their heads split open at the hands of Southern sheriffs).
Even Reagan acknowledges the good intentions of the Kennedy-Johnson years. The problem, he told last week's meeting of the National Black Republican Council, is that the programs those good intentions spawned didn't work -- and often made things worse.
"The record is there for all to see," the president said. "This country entered the 1960s having made tremendous strides in reducing poverty. From 1949 until just before the Great Society burst upon the scene in 1964, the percentage of American families living in poverty fell dramatically: from nearly 33 percent to only 18. True, the number of blacks living in poverty was still disproportionately high, but tremendous progress had been made."
Then, he said, the Great Society programs "began eating away at the underpinnings of the private enterprise system" and, "by the end of the decade the situation seemed out of control."
The civil rights leadership is, of course, incredulous that Reagan could suggest that blacks are worse off as a result of the Great Society. The government's own numbers support a measure of incredulity. In 1966, the percentage of blacks living in poverty was 41.8. By 1969, it was down to 32.2 percent. (In 1981, the most recent year for which there are good numbers, the black poverty rate was 34.2 percent.) Between the 1964 start of the Great Society and 1969, black unemployment fell from 9.6 percent to 6.4.
The drop in poverty and joblessness among blacks was unquestionably influenced by a late-'60s spurt in economic growth. But there can be little question that civil rights successes helped blacks to participate more fully in that growth than they otherwise would have.
So what on earth was the president talking about? What he was talking about is, in fact, a very real problem. Leaving aside Great Society programs that did not work as well as they might have, some that worked very well--food stamps, for instance--were spread too far up the economic ladder. As a result, the cost of programs enacted for the poor but whose beneficiaries came to include the nonpoor, has made them economically unsupportable, especially during economic hard times.
It is no libel on the Great Society to say that it is time to try some different approaches. Few in the civil rights leadership would dispute that.
What is beyond debate, from their point of view, is the Reagan notion that maybe the federal government shouldn't be trying to solve these problems at all, that they ought to be primarily the concern of local government and private enterprise.
Reagan's nostalgia is based on his belief that the best cure for poverty is a thriving economy. Blacks would not dispute that. But they would add that government commitment to racial fairness can make a big difference--thus their nostalgia for the 1960s.