Reflections on Urban America
Ladies and Gentlemen, it's great to be back with you and, as you know, I've just returned from a weeklong trip to Japan. I was there to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the reversion of Okinawa to Japan by the United States, an act that has made a lasting impression on the Japanese. While I was there, Japan announced its commitment to join with the United States in assisting Eastern and Central Europe with a 400 million dollar aid package. We also announced a manufacturing technology initiative that will allow American engineers to gain experience working in Japanese businesses. Japan and the United States are allies and partners. Though we have our differences, especially in the area of trade, our two countries – with 40% of the world's GNP – are committed to a global partnership in behalf of peace and economic growth.
But in the midst of all of these discussions of international affairs, I was asked many times in Japan about the recent events in Los Angeles. From the perspective of many Japanese, the ethnic diversity of our culture is a weakness compared to their homogeneous society. I begged to differ with my host. I explained that our diversity is our strength and I explained that the immigrants who come to our shores have made and continue to make vast contributions to our culture and our economy. It is wrong to imply that the Los Angeles riots were an inevitable outcome of our diversified society. But the question that I tried to answer in Japan is one that needs answering here. What happened? Why? And most importantly, how can we prevent it in the future?
Our response has been predictable: Instead of denouncing wrongdoing, some have shown tolerance for rioters. Some have enjoyed saying "I told you so." And some have simply made excuses for what happened. All of this has been accompanied by pleas for more money. I'll readily accept that we need to understand what happened, but I reject the idea we should tolerate or excuse it
When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple. Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame. Yes, I can understand how people were shocked and outraged by the verdict in the Rodney King trial. But, my friends, there is simply no excuse for the mayhem that followed. To apologize or in any way to excuse what happened is wrong. It is a betrayal of all those people equally outraged and equally disadvantaged who did not loot, who did not riot, and who were, in many cases, victims of the rioters. No matter how much you may disagree with the verdict, the riots were wrong. If we as a society don't condemn what is wrong, how can we teach our children what is right? But after condemning the riots, we do need to try to understand the underlying situation.
In a nutshell, I believe the lawless social anarchy which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society. For the poor, the situation is compounded by a welfare ethos that impedes individual efforts to move ahead in society, and hampers their ability to take advantage of the opportunities America offers. If we don't succeed in addressing these fundamental problems and in restoring basic values, any attempt to fix what's broken will fail. One reason I believe we won't fail is that we have come so far in the last twenty-five years. There is no question that this country has had a terrible problem with race and racism. The evil of slavery has left a long legacy.
But we have faced racism squarely, and we have made progress in the past quarter of a century. With landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s, we removed legal barriers to allow full participation by blacks in the economic, social, and political life of the nation. By any measure, the America of 1992 is more egalitarian, more integrated, and offers more opportunities to black Americans and all other minority members than the America of 1964. There is more to be done, but I think that all of us can be proud of our progress. And let's be specific about one aspect of this progress. The country now has a black middle class that barely existed a quarter-century ago. Since 1967, the median income of black two-parent families has risen by 60 percent in real terms. The number of black college graduates has skyrocketed. Black men and women have achieved real political power. Black mayors head forty-eight of our largest cities, including Los Angeles. These are achievements. These are real achievements, but as we all know, there's another side to that bright landscape.
During this period of progress, we have also developed a culture of poverty -- some call it an underclass -- that is far more violent and harder to escape than it was a generation ago. The poor you always have with you, Scripture tells us, and in America we have always had poor people. But in this dynamic, prosperous nation, poverty has traditionally been a stage through which people pass on their way to joining the great middle class. And if one generation didn't get very far up the ladder, their ambitious, better-educated children would. But the underclass seems to be a new phenomenon. It is a group whose members are dependent on welfare for very long stretches, and whose men are often drawn into lives of crime. There is far too little upward mobility, because the underclass is disconnected from the rules of American society. And these problems have, unfortunately, been particularly acute for black Americans.
In 1967, 68 percent of black families were headed by married couples. In 1991, only 48 percent of black families were headed by both a husband and wife. In 1965, the illegitimacy rate among black families was 28 percent. In 1989, 65 percent, two-thirds of all black children were born with never-married mothers. In 1951 9.2 percent of black youth between 16-19 were unemployed. In 1965, it was 23 percent. In 1980, it was 35 percent. By 1989, the number had declined slightly, but was still 32 percent. The leading cause of death of young black males today is homicide.
It would be overly simplistic to blame this social breakdown on the programs of the Great Society alone. It would be absolutely wrong to blame it on the growth and success most Americans enjoyed during the 1980s. Rather, we are in large measure reaping the whirlwind of decades of changes in social mores.
I was born in 1947, so I'm considered one of those baby boomers that we keep reading about. But let's look at one unfortunate legacy of the so-called boomer generation. When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. Indulgence and self-gratification seemed to have no consequences. Many of our generation glamorized casual sex and drug use, evaded responsibility, and trashed authority. Today, the boomers are middle-aged and middle class. The responsibility of having families has helped many recover traditional values. And of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the sixties and seventies. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The intergenerational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.
Our inner cities are filled with children having children, with people who have not been able to take advantage of educational opportunities, with people who are dependent on drugs or the narcotic of welfare. To be sure, many people in the ghettos struggle very hard against these tides and sometimes win. But too many feel they have no hope and nothing to lose. This poverty is, again, fundamentally a poverty of values. Unless we change the basic rules of society in our inner cities, we cannot expect anything else to change. We will simply get more of what we saw three weeks ago. New thinking, new ideas, new strategies are needed. For the government, transforming underclass culture means that our policies and programs must create a different incentive system. Our policies must be premised on and must reinforce values such as family, hard work, integrity, personal responsibility. I think we can all agree that government's first obligation is to maintain order. We are a nation of laws, not looting. It has become clear that the riots were fueled by the vicious gangs that terrorize the inner cities. We are committed to breaking those gangs and restoring law and order.
As James Q. Wilson has written, programs of economic restructuring will not work so long as gangs control the streets. Some people say law and order are code words. Well, they are code words -- code words for safety, getting control of the streets, and freedom from fear. And let's not forget that in 1990, 84 percent of the crimes committed by blacks were committed against blacks. We are for law and order. If a single mother raising her children in the ghetto has to worry about drive-by shootings, drug deals, or whether her children will join gangs and die violently, the difficult tasks becomes next to impossible. We're for law and order because we can't expect children to learn in dangerous schools. We're for law and order because if property isn't protected, who will build the businesses, who will make the investment? Safety is absolutely necessary, but it's not sufficient. Our urban strategy is to empower the poor by giving them control over their lives. To do that, our urban agenda included fully funding the Home Ownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere program.
Subsidized housing all too often merely made rich investors richer. Home ownership will give the poor a stake in their neighborhood and a chance to build equity. Creating enterprise zones by slashing taxes in targeted area, including a zero capital gains tax to spur entrepreneurship, economic development, and job creation in the inner cities; instituting our education strategy, America 2000, to raise academic standards and to give the poor the same choices about how and where to educate their children that the rich people have; promoting welfare reform to remove the penalties for marriage, creating incentives for saving, and give communities greater control over how the programs are administered -- these programs are empowerment programs.
Empowering the poor will strengthen families, and right now the failure of our families is hurting America deeply. When family fails, society fails. The anarchy and lack of structure in our inner cities are testament to how quickly civilization falls apart when the family foundation cracks. Children need love and discipline; they need mothers and fathers. A welfare check is not a husband; the state is not a father. It is from parents that children learn how to behave in society. It is from parents, above all, that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers. And for those concerned about children growing up in poverty, we should know this -- marriage is probably the best anti-poverty program of all.
Among families headed by married couples today, there is a poverty rate of 5.7 percent. But 33.4 percent of families headed by a single mother are in poverty today. Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there are no mature, responsible men around to teach boys how to be good men, gangs serve in their place. In fact, gangs have become a surrogate family for much of a generation of inner-city boys. I recently visited with some former gang members in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In a private meeting, they told me why they had joined gangs. These teenage boys said that gangs gave them a sense of security. They made them feel wanted, and useful. They got support from their friends. And, they said, "It was like having a family." "Like family." Unfortunately that says it all.
The system perpetuates itself as these young men father children whom they have no intention of caring for, by women whose welfare checks support them. Teenage girls mired in the same hopelessness lack sufficient motive to say no to this trap. Answers to our problems won't be easy, my friends. We can start by dismantling a welfare system that encourages dependency and subsidizes broken families. We can attach conditions such as school attendance or work to welfare. We can limit the time a recipient gets benefits. We can stop penalizing marriage for welfare mothers. We can enforce child support payments. Ultimately, however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus and social sanctions.
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong and we must be unequivocal about this. It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice. I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV and the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good and other things are wrong. Now it's time to make the discussion public. It's time to talk again about family, hard work, integrity and personal responsibility. We cannot be embarrassed out of our belief that two parents married to each other are better, in most cases, for children than one. That honest work is better than handouts or crime, that we are our brother's keepers. That is worth making an effort, even when rewards aren't immediate.
So I think the time has come to renew our public commitment to our Judeo-Christian values -- in our churches and synagogues, our civic organization and our schools. We are, as our Children recite each morning, "one nation under God." That's a useful framework for acknowledging a duty and an authority higher than our own pleasures and personal ambitions. If we lived more thoroughly by these values, we would live in a better society. For the poor, renewing these values will give people the strength to help themselves by acquiring the tools to achieve self-sufficiency, a good education, job training, and property. Then they will move from permanent dependence to dignified independence.
Shelby Steele, in his great book, The Content of Our Character, writes: "Personal responsibility is the brick and mortar of power. The responsible person knows that the quality of his life is something that he will have to make inside the limits of his fate... The quality of his life will pretty much reflect his efforts." I believe that the Bush Administration's empowerment agenda will help the poor gain that power, by creating opportunity, and letting people make the choices that free citizens must make. Though our hearts have been pained by the events in Los Angeles, we should take this tragedy as an opportunity for self-examination and progress. So let the national debate roar on. I, for one, will join it. The president will lead it. The American people will participate in it, and as a result, we will become an even stronger nation. Thank you very much and God bless you.