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An American Tragedy BY IRVING HOWE The following is reprinted, with permission, from the Fall 1989 issue of Dissent, 521 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017. I want to mention very briefly not discuss, not analyze a few matters that we will be returning to in future issues of Dissent. They are central to our moment. A few facts, perhaps known but worth repeating: Nearly one out of every four residents in New York lives on an income below the poverty line, which in 1987 was set by the federal government at $11,611 for a family of four. In 1988, 23.2 percent of the New York City population lived below the poverty line. A study by the National League of Cities discloses that poverty in America’s cities has grown more concentrated and persistent over the last two decades. The proportion of the poor living in metropolitan areas rose from 62 to 70 percent in 1985 an increase of 7.6 million people. In the Times Square subway station, reports the New York Times stepping across a sleeping man who lay “stark naked.” One woman with a sense of decorum “paused to cover his buttocks with a Saks Fifth Avenue shopping bag.” The rate of killings due to “drug wars” has risen astonishingly in Washington, D.C. Over 300 people, mostly blacks, were shot last year, within walking distance of the White House presided over by a gentleman who wishes a “kinder and gentler” America. William J. Bennett, yesterday the education boss, has been appointed “drug czar.” Little if any additional funding will be provided the czar, who will have to get by on eloquence. Everyone with eyes to see is coming to recognize that beneath the surface of affluence and the ideology of the “free market,” there is taking place in this country a steady, grinding process of social decay. Drugs, violence, poverty, gangs, homelessness, shootouts are but a few of the symptoms. Malaise, disintegration, pathology, “underclass” these are some of the key words. The reality is a terrible dehumanization, the worst we have known in fifty years, and only Kojak seems able to cope with it. And only on television reruns. Is there a single solution to this complex of troubles? Probably not. Could there be a complex of programs that might alleviate this social disaster? Unquestionably. Would it cost a lot of money? Yes. Might some of it be wasted? Probably. But when you read about vast Pentagon “overcosts,” you don’t feel so bad at the possibility of spending a little extra to cope with the decay of the cities and the people who live in them. Government officials, from the conservative Bush to the liberal Cuomo, keep talking about “budget crunches.” And some intellectuals refer sagely to the “limits of social policy.” No doubt there are limits, but it might be .a good thing at least to approach them. This is the single greatest set of social issues really, moral disgraces facing American life today. In future issues of Dissent, over the next year or two, we’re going to try to tackle them. No, we don’t have all the answers. But we’ll have some. At the very least, we’ll try to stir up some feeling, some concern, some thought. This together with discussion of the remarkable changes occurring in the Soviet Union seems to us the central theme for the months ahead. Stay with us. American Income Life Insurance Company American EXECUTIVE OFFICES: P.O. SOX 206, WACO. ‘TEXAS 76703, 617.772-3060 BERNARD RAPOPORT Chairman of the Boast, and Chief Executive Officer THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15