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12:00 AM, Oct 7, 1996 • By ALAN EHRENHALT
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But in what way was that decision a product of economic circumstance? For one thing, it was made in 1949, long before, in Wilson's terms, work in the ghetto began to "disappear." In those immediate postwar years, in Washington as in all large American cities, industrial jobs for black people were more plentiful than they had been before the war or would be a generation later. It is perhaps plausible to argue, as Wilson does, that teenage girls in the ghetto have babies these days because they realize there are no decent jobs for fathers and thus no opportunity for a conventional family life. But this is not the situation Rosa Lee Cunningham confronted nearly 50 years ago when she had her first baby and set all the tragic events of Dash's story in motion.

Segregation or no segregation, ghetto or no ghetto, I think it makes sense to treat a pregnancy such as Rosa Lee's first one in 1949 as an act of individual choice. What is more, most of the ghetto would treat it that way as well.

In painting his portrait of innercity Chicago, Wilson draws upon mounds of statistics, survey data, and personal interviews. The interviews are quite revealing. "The project don't make nobody," a 28-year-old welfare mother tells her interviewer, "you make yourself. Now, if you want to get out there and carry that project name, be tough and rowdy and sloppy, disrespectful, well, shoot, that's lowlife." A 33-year-old unemployed woman, living in a public housing project in which a majority of the residents are not only unemployed but destitute, makes exactly the same point. "I think that everybody has a chance to get ahead," she says, "but it's all where your mind's at."

Wilson offers this testimony to make the argument that ghetto values are much closer to middle-class values than most of the middleclass thinks. What he succeeds in proving is that they are closer to middle-class values than Wilson's own. The residents of the ghetto, unlike Wilson himself, tend to treat one another as free agents and hold themselves responsible for the decisions they make in life, regardless of the vicissitudes of the global economy. Wilson, for all his sophistication in analyzing the urban predicament, refuses to make the simple assumption of moral agency that his subjects make almost as a matter of course.

Wilson avoids the trap of regarding ghetto residents simply as victims of racial discrimination. In so doing, however, he comes close to writing them off as significant actors of any sort. The book's title itself says a great deal. "Work" is what has disappeared -- not initiative or discipline or character. "Work" is the protagonist. Wilson avoids calling people victims only to re-label them as economic pawns.

But even the reader who is sympathetic to Wilson's arguments about urban deindustrialization -- and I am one -- can't help reflecting that the disappearance of work is more than simply an economic problem. Why does Citibank, a New York City institution, handle its credit card processing in Sioux Falls rather than Brownsville or the South Bronx? State tax rates undoubtedly have something to do with it: Doing business is cheaper in South Dakota than anywhere in New York state. But the values of the work force have even more to do with it, as I think Wilson would concede. If the South Bronx were a safe place with a literate and disciplined work force, employers would be returning there right now.

According to Wilson's survey data, 74 percent of white employers in Chicago expressed negative feelings about the character and discipline of ghetto workers and ghetto job applicants. Ninety percent of black employers expressed the same feelings. "It's an attitude problem," one of the black employers said. "That's all I can tell you."

In other words, it is a circle. Jobs leave the inner city, and the residents become demoralized, in every sense of the word. Under those conditions, jobs do not return, no matter how many people in the community are unemployed and say they want to work. Is it economics or is it culture? The question hardly matters. It is both.

It would be unfair to accuse Wilson of not understanding this. For the most part, he understands it perfectly well. It is only the ultimate leap, from cultural analysis to moral judgment, that he is stubbornly unwilling to make.

As a result, the laundry list of policy solutions he offers in the concluding chapter of his book is a collection of tasks for governments to perform, not a call to moral renewal on an individual scale. He calls for national school performance standards, a federal school-to-work transition program, resumption of federal revenue sharing with local governments, regional mass transit to take inner-city residents to suburban jobs, universal health care, and a massive expansion of Head Start into a fully subsidized preschool program covering virtually all of the children in the country.

Training for the chronically unemployed would take place at a network of centers distributed at convenient inner-city sites, designed to "make persons who have been persistently unemployed or out of the labor force "job ready," so that a prospective employer would be assured that a worker understands and appreciates employers' expectations such as showing up for work on time, and on a regular basis, accepting the orders of supervisors, etc."

There is no denying that programs such as these would help a significant number of people; all poverty programs help somebody. But could they help more than a tiny fraction of the 150,000 residents of Chicago public housing projects, many of whom long ago lost any real contact with the values and disciplines of working life? Could they help Rosa Lee Cunningham and her children, who among them have spent more than a century making their living only from the combined proceeds of drugs, prostitution, larceny, and welfare?

What would help these people? The beginning of wisdom, it seems to me, is to say that nobody knows. But in the absence of good ideas, it seems a serious failing to leave out, as Wilson does, any prospect of an inner-city moral revival, religious or otherwise, that would spread the simple message of Wilson's respondent: "The project don't make you, you make yourself."

To return to the notion of ghetto residents as free actors is not to deny the truth of much of what Wilson says about how the ghetto got this way. Yes, the disappearance of jobs has something to do with it. Yes, the historical legacy of groundless discrimination in northern cities like Chicago remains a factor. Yes, Dash is right, the caste mentality imposed on rural African Americans in the old sharecropper South is still an obstacle.

But knowing the roots of a problem doesn't necessarily point the way out. Of all the organizations swirling around present-day ghetto politics, the Nation of Islam is the one that seems to understand this. It is the world champion when it comes to ascribing the plight of the ghetto to evil outside forces -- greedy Jews, racist white governments, genocidal plots that wind their way implausibly back to the slave trade of the 1700s. But for all the preposterous rhetoric, the black Muslims don't preach that dwelling on the origins of squalor is the best way to return communities to health. They preach that even under the worst circumstances, residents of the ghetto remain free moral agents -- even 13-year-old girls tempted to pregnancy, even parolees thrust back onto the druginfested streets where they first got in trouble. It isn't easy to straighten out in those circumstances, but it is possible. So the Muslims say, and for all that is offensive about them, they have turned around more lives in the last generation than all the federal community-action programs put together.

It isn't very comfortable or satisfying to reduce the problems of the ghetto to individual moral choice, and in many cases, as Wilson and Dash point out, anyone who seeks to make such a case inevitably runs up against the heavy baggage of historical injustice. And yet in treating people, even the most degraded people, with the respect due them as free moral agents, one can at least see a glimmer of hope somewhere down the line. Proposals based on massive government intervention don't offer even that.

In the end, what can one say about the notion of moral responsibility in the ghetto? Perhaps something akin to what Churchill said about democracy: It is the least likely answer, except for all the answers that have been tried.

Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing and the author, most recently, of The Lost City: The Forgotten Virtues of Community in America (now in paperback from BasicBooks).