The old story has the farmer whacking his mule across the head with a 2 x 4, then saying "giddyap!" Another whack, and then "haw!"
The farmer's explanation to a puzzled bystander: "It ain't that the mule don't understand what you want him to do; it's just that first you got to get his attention."
Well, a series of reports and policy pronouncements, a rash of newspaper articles and Bill Moyers' television blockbuster last Saturday have combined to call the nation's attention to the plight of the growing underclass: its teen-age mothers, its jobless and disconnected young fathers, its eroded values and its deteriorated families.
It's time now to lay down the 2 x 4 and talk about the direction of reform.
I don't pretend to have a fully developed plan to substitute for the welfare system and other social policies that have contributed, at least indirectly, to the problems afflicting the underclass. As far as I can see, nobody has.
But we might reach some agreement on what such a substitute plan might include. The first thing on the list would be to get rid of the topsy- turvy policies that have stood the normal reward-and-punishment system on its head.
Who in his right mind, for instance, would devise a system that distributes a scarce and costly commodity on the sole basis of failure? And yet, that is precisely how we distribute public housing. You have to be an economic failure to be eligible for public housing, and you have to keep on being a failure to remain.
In the real world, you afford a larger apartment by working harder and reducing your expenditures -- for instance, by deciding to postpone having any more children for a while. In Topsy-Turvy Land, you get your bigger apartment by having more children. Improvidence pays, and prudence goes unrewarded.
In the real world, supplementing and scrimping gets you ahead. In Topsy-Turvy Land, supplementing and scrimping reduces your welfare check. In the real world, marrying the father of your children makes economic sense. In Topsy- Turvy land, marriage is an economic wash at best, and may even be an economic negative. And yet it comes to us as a surprise that the people rewarded for their negative behavior keep doing negative things.
That's one thing to keep in mind while we are fashioning alternatives. Another is that we need to start paying more attention to people who have in fact fashioned workable alternatives under incredibly unpromising circumstances.
The panel of black leaders and intellectuals who discussed the problems of the underclass following the Moyers documentary displayed considerable courage and intellectual honesty. They deserve to be congratulated.
But we could have learned infinitely more by talking to Kimi Gray, whose genius has turned the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing project (where she is resident manager) into an unparalleled success.
Item:The year before she started her "College Here We Come" program, an average of two young people from the 464 households in Kenilworth-Parkside were going to college each year. In the seven years since, 580 residents have gone on to post-secondary education.
Item:Before Gray took over as resident manager, 85 percent of the households relied on transfer payments to some extent, and 30 percent were totally dependent on welfare for income. And now? Both welfare dependency and teen-age pregnancy have been reduced by half, crime is down by two-thirds and rent collections are up by some 130 percent -- to the point that the project now generates enough income to pay all of its $440,000 operating expenses and accrue a surplus of some $150,000 a year.
The horror stories, however embarrassing they may be, are a useful attention getter.
But further wielding of the 2 x 4 amounts to a useless and perhaps counterproductive beating up of poor people. It's time to start searching for different directions. It's time to stop asking how things got so bad and start asking how Kimi Gray -- and untold numbers of undiscovered Kimi Grays -- managed to turn things around.