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hao Inn Kitchenettes Cable TV Heated Pool y beside the Gulf of Mexico d Available for private parties f a b Unique European Charm A AFFORDABLE RATES I’ci s Welcome SI .615″ Pert Aransas, TX 783’3 0 1423 11th Strcct 11 call j I’brIb.'” c %16………. 10, for Reserralions 0 Ad i ;P A 01 4 ye. .0 .1,001006.1% ger` %to Sea Horse S on Mustang 1.sland MOLLY IVINS On the Urban Poor Two extraordinary books make brilliant companion pieces about one of the most disturbing and politically and morally troubling crises in our country. Inner-city poverty is one of those subjects about which too many of us think we already know as much as we need to know. Minds made up, smug assumptions intact, pat solutions and platitudes”bootstraps,” “enterprise zones,” “responsibil ity,” “teen pregnancy,” “school vouchers”endless bromides. Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America by Leon Dash \(who won the Pulitzer Prize and When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, by the distinguished sociologist William Julius Wilson, take completely different approaches to the same story. It is hard to think of more radically different perspectives: Dash’s book is, as they say, up close and personal, the in-your-face story of one three-generation welfare family. Wilson’s book provides the consoling perspective of social science; and yet, with its relentless accumulation of fact, it is in its way the more horrifying of the two books. But because Dash’s book is essentially reportage on a hideous situation, in the end, Wilson’s bookwith its careful, nuanced, scholarly argumentsis the more hopeful of the two. He sees solutions that are critical for all of us, not just for poor blacks in inner cities. “The problems of joblessness and social dislocation in the inner city are, in part, related to the processes in the global economy that have contributed to greater inequality and insecurity among American workers in general and to the failure of U.S. social policies to adjust to these processes. It is therefore myopic to view the problems of jobless ghettos as if they were separate from those that plague the larger society.” Wilsonlike Mickey Kaus and others who study the inner citybelieves that JOBS are the single most important answer to the sociopathologies of the ghetto. The ludicrous insanity of telling people on welfare to go out and get a job when they live in areas where every entry-level job has applicants stacked up ten and fifteen deep is something that only Newt Gingrich’s Congress could have come up with. In this arid campaign year, devoted to the problems of “soccer moms,” Wilson’s deep analysis of the problems that paralyze the ghettoand increasingly the rest of America as wellis as welcome as a slow, soakin’ three-inch rain on a parched prairie. he story of Rosa Lee Cunningham, her eight children and numerous grandchildren, is a tour de force of a different kind. You want to shake her, you want to scream at her, but most of all, you care about her. Not to coin a phrase, but I couldn’t put the book down. No noble, downtrodden victims in this bookhard-core hell-raisers, people rippin’ off the system \(not to mention every crime, drugs, prostitution, AIDSwhat a mess. When “Mr. Dash,” as Rosa Lee always called him, first ran this story in the Washington Post, a lot of middle-class black folks objectedsaid it was reinforcing stereotypes, why not write about the success stories, etc. Well, because the success stories aren’t the problem. I suppose those who think “values” are the answer to everything could find some reinforcement from this book. But I think that more perceptive readers will find much more. Wilson’s point about jobs is only indirectly reinforced. The institutional failure that I find most striking in this story is that of the public schools. Not only was Rosa Lee Cunningham illiterate, but so are most of her children. Her whole life centered on Lee’s slow, hurting realization of how badly she had neglected their education is one of the most painful parts of the book. “Mr. Dash” also focuses on the two of Rosa Lee’s eight children who made it out of the ghettoboth sons. And here all the sociological studies fall away and the mysteries of human development and luck come into play. In both cases, the answer was simple: Somebody helped. A wonderful teacher, a persistent social worker somebody was there for those two kids at a time when it made a big difference, in early adolescence. The most surprising part of Rosa Lee’s story to me was how she herself was shaped: her family’s caste and class in rural North Carolina, the source of her own mother’s rigid, angry tungsten-toughnessall that might have been in her life. It has been said that the trouble with liberals is that we are hopelessly nonjudgmental, unable to say, “You are bad.” But I do not see how it helps to demonize or dehumanize Rosa Lee Cunningham. It seems to me that we lose something of our own humanity if we do not look at Rosa Lee and think, “There but for the grace of God…” Molly Ivins, a former Observer editor, is a columnist for the Fort Worth StarTelegram. 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 27, 1996