Star Parker

Anyone who would like insight into why black poverty in America persists in the pathological way it does should read a recent lead story in National Journal called "Social Policy - The Katrina Experiment."

The article provides a useful and revealing panorama of low-income-housing policy since its inception in the Johnson administration, through today's thinking regarding policy options for housing for the hundreds of thousands of Katrina evacuees who are still unsettled.

For me, two troubling themes jump out:

First, the common denominator of low-income-housing programs over these last 40 years is that they have been consistent failures. Yet, despite this indisputable fact, today's social-policy gurus persist in search of the magic government low-income-housing program, rather than appreciating that the problem has been, and is today, government interference in private lives.

Second, and, frankly, revolting, is how graphically clear it is that social "scientists" view poor blacks as simple laboratory guinea pigs.

Consider, for instance, the following, regarding "mobility theory," which hypothesizes that the only hope for poor black neighborhoods is to break them up and disperse folks into white or racially mixed neighborhoods:

"By 1992, Congress was ready to test the mobility theory rigorously. Between 1994 and 1998, housing authorities in five cities recruited 4,600 very-low-income families for Moving to Opportunity demonstrations _ still ongoing _ intended to compare the outcomes in three groups of families. One group received regular Section 8 government housing vouchers, another group received more-prescriptive vouchers plus counseling, and a control group got no vouchers at all."

Yes, indeed we are talking about human beings here. After a half-century of this sort of thing, can you guess why inner-city blacks may have problems?

The housing projects, started in the Johnson administration, were initiated under the premise that poor blacks can't figure out what other poor people seem to be able to figure out regarding going to work and paying the rent.

The failed housing projects gave birth to Section 8 vouchers in the Nixon administration. As the problems and failures of this social experiment became clear, new ideas blossomed.

"Mobility theory" is today's brainstorm. Use government as a vehicle to purge poor blacks out of the ghetto and disperse them around the country into healthy environments and hope that the good news will rub off.

Social-science elitists are excited today because Hurricane Katrina has become an unexpected accomplice. It did their work for them to implement the first part of the experiment _ it purged poor blacks out of their neighborhoods. Now they want to design government programs to do the rest.

Here's David Brooks of The New York Times:

"Hurricane Katrina has given us an amazing chance to do something serious about urban poverty. ... The only chance we have to break the cycle of poverty is to integrate people who lack middle-class skills into neighborhoods with people who possess these skills and who insist on certain standards of behavior."

Washington, D.C., where our senators and congressmen go to work, and where I assume Brooks has spent a good deal of time, has a poverty rate 50 percent above the national average. I guess that over recent years Brooks never felt there was an opportunity to do "something serious" about this poverty because no natural disaster purged these folks into the street.

In 1996, I worked on welfare reform. This reform was driven by the unique premise, easily grasped without a Ph.D., that the way to get folks off welfare was to inform them that they could only be on it for a limited time. Today, welfare rolls are half what they were in 1996.

Low-income-housing programs of all forms have failed because they are just that _ programs. Compassion is expressed through temporary assistance in emergencies, not in fostering dehumanized dependency.

The Katrina disaster shouldn't be used as an opportunity to grow government and launch new social experiments.

Government assistance to evacuees should be at arm's length, and should maximize individual choice and latitude. Provide fairly priced rental vouchers, perhaps equal to the national average rental plus 20 percent, redeemable anywhere, with a reasonable but clearly finite duration. Say, one year.

If we truly want to help the poor across the board, put time limits on Section 8 vouchers, with a goal of totally ending the program.

The social-science elitists may find it hard to believe, but poor blacks really can figure out what they need to do when the facts are put in front of them and the responsibility is theirs to act.


Star Parker

Star Parker is founder and president of CURE, the Center for Urban Renewal and Education, a 501c3 think tank which explores and promotes market based public policy to fight poverty, as well as author of the newly revised Uncle Sam's Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves America's Poor and What We Can do About It.