President Johnson visits the Fletcher family in Inez, Ky., in 1964.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION
For those who see the rioting in Baltimore as primarily about race, two broad reactions dominate.
One group sees rampaging young men fouling their own neighborhoods and concludes nothing can be done because the social pathologies are so overwhelming. In some cities, this view manifests itself in the unspoken but cynical policing that effectively cedes whole neighborhoods to the thugs.
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Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Jason Riley on what prompted the violence and what comes next. Photo credit: Getty Images.
The other group tut-tuts about root causes. Take your pick: inequality, poverty, injustice. Or, as President Obamaintimated in an ugly aside on the rioting, a Republican Congress that will never agree to the “massive investments” (in other words, billions more in federal spending) required “if we are serious about solving this problem.”
There is another view. In this view, the disaster of inner cities isn’t primarily about race at all. It’s about the consequences of 50 years of progressive misrule—which on race has proved an equal-opportunity failure.
Baltimore is but the latest liberal-blue city where government has failed to do the one thing it ought—i.e., put the cops on the side of the vulnerable and law-abiding—while pursuing “solutions” that in practice enfeeble families and social institutions and local economies.
These supposed solutions do this by substituting federal transfers for fathers and families. They do it by favoring community organizing and government projects over private investment. And they do it by propping up failing public-school systems that operate as jobs programs for the teachers unions instead of centers of learning.
If our inner-city African-American communities suffer disproportionately from crippling social pathologies that make upward mobility difficult—and they do—it is in large part because they have disproportionately been on the receiving end of this five-decade-long progressive experiment in government beneficence.
How do we know? Because when we look at a slice of white America that was showered with the same Great Society good intentions—Appalachia—we find the same dysfunctions: greater dependency, more single-parent families and the absence of the good, private-sector jobs that only a growing economy can create.
Remember, in the mid-1960s when President Johnson put a face on America’s “war on poverty,” he didn’t do it from an urban ghetto. He did it from the front porch of a shack in eastern Kentucky’s Martin County, where a white family of 10 eked out a subsistence living on an income of $400 a year.
In many ways, rural Martin County and urban Baltimore could not be more different. Martin County is 92% white while Baltimore is two-thirds black. Each has seen important sources of good-paying jobs dry up—Martin County in coal mining, Baltimore in manufacturing. In the last presidential election, Martin Country voted 6 to 1 for Mitt Romney while Baltimore went 9 to 1 for Barack Obama.
Yet the Great Society’s legacy has been depressingly similar. In a remarkable dispatch two years ago, the Lexington Herald-Leader’sJohn Cheves noted that the war on poverty sent $2.1 billion to Martin County alone (pop. 12,537) through programs including “welfare, food stamps, jobless benefits, disability compensation, school subsidies, affordable housing, worker training, economic development incentives, Head Start for poor children and expanded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”
The result? “The problem facing Appalachia today isn’t Third World poverty,” writes Mr. Cheves. “It’s dependence on government assistance.” Just one example: When Congress imposed work requirements and lifetime caps for welfare during the Clinton administration, claims of disability jumped.
Mr. Cheves quotes a former grade-school principal who says this of Martin County’s children: “Instead of talking about a future of work, or a profession, they talk about getting a check.”
Yes, Washington’s largess has done some good. Even the federal government can’t spend billions of dollars without building a decent road or bridge here or there. But it all came at a high human cost.
To put the war on poverty’s “gains” in perspective, moreover, it is worth comparing the progress in both inner-city Baltimore and rural Martin County over the past half-century with, say, South Korea over the same time. While the Great Society’s billions were creating a culture of dependency, South Korea—with its emphasis on trade and global competition—rose from the ashes of a terrible war to become the world’s 12th-largest economy.
Meanwhile, President Obama says the rioting in Baltimore means “we as a country have to do some soul-searching.” He’s right about that, even though what he means by this is that others need to come around to his view. If the president really wanted to launch some national soul-searching, he would invite, say, Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) for a chat about how to get cities such as Baltimore to start generating jobs again.
Because to look at urban black Baltimore and rural white Martin County and conclude that the answer is more cradle-to-grave, “Life of Julia” federal love isn’t soul searching. It’s denial.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."