Item: On June 3, a study by the Children's Defense Fund sketched a crisis for black children. The CDF called for more jobs for teens, more subsidized housing, and more birth-control clinics. A CDF staffer priced the desired agenda at $14 billion.
Item: Last week the Commerce Department confirmed the sharpest one-year drop in poverty in 16 years. It was tied to last year's 6.8 percent surge in real GNP growth, which was induced by tax reduction rather than by make-work or social welfare programs.
Is the glass half empty or half full? Those taking the half-full view could cite additional indicators: infant mortality rates below their 1980 levels; stepped-up collections of child support from delinquent fathers; one of every five new jobs since 1982 going to a black person.
Then again, some of what the CDF said should shake us up: "Only 67% of America's black children have an employed parent, compared to 86% of white children . . . In 1982, over 55% of all births to black women were out of wedlock . . . Among black women under age 20 the proportion was 86% . . . Eight out of every 10 white children live in two-parent families; only 4 out of 10 black children do . . . Black children are . . . four times as likely to be murdered. . . ."
High GNP growth will not be enough. To judge from new data on the ineffectiveness of much welfare spending, neither will ambitious federal programs. What we will have is an irresistible force -- economic growth -- eventually meeting an immovable object -- hard-core poverty, and a culture of dependency that Franklin Roosevelt called "a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit."
When it comes to poverty, conservatives and administration supporters say the glass is half full, while CDF and its liberal allies blame the president for a glass half empty. What should be discussed is whose agenda is more likely to fill the glass.
The glass could be filled by an agenda that promotes individual enterprise, public safety and traditional values. Indeed, 20 years after the launching of the Great Society, it is surprisingly easy to envision a Republican war on poverty. It might consist of:
*Tax Relief: The president's tax-simplification package would drastically reduce the federal tax burden on the under-$15,000 group. For helping low-income working families, it was the only tax plan to earn a perfect rating from the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families. It helps to make work more rewarding than welfare.
*Enterprise Zones: Owning a small business is one of the greatest work incentives and family-strengtheners in history. Enterprise zones have twice passed the Senate and even won Walter Mondale's blessing. But the House blocks them.
*Job Training: The administration, with the Job Training Partnership Act, replaced leaf-raking with skill-making. Over half the trainees find permanent jobs in the private sector. This approach can be expanded: Bob Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise suggests making relief payments available in lump sums for training programs or as risk capital for starting a business.
*Youth Opportunity Wage: Willing workers age 16-21 should not be subject to regular minimum-wage laws when looking for temporary summer jobs. The National Conference of Black Mayors agrees, recognizing that the chance to begin learning the skills and attitudes of job-holding means more in the early period than how much one gets paid.
*Public Housing: The most responsible tenants should get to manage the properties, with the chance to buy them over time. In experimental cases, drugs, vandalism and vacancies have dropped sharply. Look to England: Margaret Thatcher's Tories have a housing strategy that has created anti-property tax and pro-free market political support among lower-income, former Laborite voters.
*Stopping Crime: Serious crime was falling even before the effects of the anti-crime legislation pushed through Congress in 1984 were felt. But it will always be worst in poor neighborhoods. No group that speaks out "for the poor" is too credible if it lacks a plan to further cut crime rates. Yet how many Republicans think to market their tough stance on crime as real concern for poor America?
There would be universal support for a crackdown on violent juveniles. Their offenses at present do not count toward a "police record." That means hardened criminals don't technically start their hardening until age 18. But stiff sentences early prevent crimes later. This is called "targeted sentencing," and innocent poor children would be alive today if there were more of it.
When it comes to welfare-state approaches to poverty, the liberals are intellectually bankrupt. The government is just plain bankrupt. Fighting poverty these days means accommodating both fiscal reality and human nature. The new poverty numbers should be the foundation from which Republicans innovate -- using approaches they already happen to be comfortable with.