Kerner Report: A 20-Year Review

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Following are excerpts from the report of the 1988 Commission on the Cities, a citizen group that organized a recent conference of scholars and policymakers, co-sponsored by the Institute for Public Policy at the University of New Mexico and the Johnson Foundation, to reflect on the 20th anniversary of the President's National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (also known as the Kerner Commission).

For a time following the Kerner Report, America made progress on all fronts--from the late 1960's through the mid-1970's. Then came a series of severe economic shocks that hit the most vulnerable hardest. Poverty is worse now for black Americans, Hispanic Americans, American Indians, and other minorities. But not just for them. The rise in unemployment and poverty has cut across racial and ethnic lines--and affects both blacks and other minorities and whites. (More whites than minority people are poor.)

Severe Economic Shocks

There were a series of recessions--most often precipitated or accentuated by a restrictive monetary policy and high interest rates--culminating in an economic crisis as bad as any since the 1930's.

The closing of manufacturing plants and the removal of blue-collar jobs to the suburbs, as well as the loss of blue-collar jobs altogether--trends the Kerner Report had called attention to--accelerated. These were the very jobs upon which central-city residents had been most dependent.

The movement of the unemployment rates through the last 20 years has tracked the poverty rates very closely.

Fast-food and other retail service jobs replaced some of this lost employment, but at much lower pay. The higher-pay new service jobs which came to the cities--accounting, finance, professional, and others--were those least available to the workers left in the inner cities.

Efforts to break unions were successful. Wage "givebacks'' were common. The federal minimum wage, which had been raised four times between 1978 and 1981 (during which time, employment rose 9 percent), was not raised again after 1980.

Poverty increased. Census figures show that in 1986, 32.4 million Americans were poor (compared with 24.1 million in 1969). This included about 22 million whites, nearly 9 million blacks, and about 5 million Hispanics.

In 1986, according to the Census, two million Americans were poor even though they were working full time and year round--52 percent more than in 1975, 22 percent more than in 1980. Another 6.9 million people were working part time, or full time for a part of the year, and still could not earn enough to get above the poverty line.

From 1980 through June of last year, average weekly earnings increased from $235 to $305, but, adjusted for inflation, this represented, in fact, a drop in real wages--down to $227. (This was true, even though productivity had risen at an impressive average of 4 percent a year from 1981 to 1985 and had increased in 1986 by 3.5 percent--better than either Japan or Germany.)

Nearly 6 percent of Americans--nearly eight million people--are officially unemployed. They are actively searching for work without success. Another one million "discouraged'' workers have given up and stopped looking for jobs.

Cuts in Social Programs

Today, less than 1 percent of the federal budget is spent for education, down from 2 percent in 1980. Job-training and job-subsidization programs were cut nearly 70 percent--from $9 billion in 1981 to only $4 billion.

Less than 1 percent of the federal budget is now spent on training and job programs. Yet, that part of the federal budget spent on the military has increased from 35 percent in 1980 to 41 percent today.

Job-training funds peaked in 1978. Not only have they gone down since then, but the declining funds are mainly used, now, for the least disadvantaged, leaving very little for the high-school dropouts and the less skilled.

A quarter of a million young people--25 percent of the total when President Reagan took office--have been cut from the Summer Youth Employment Program.

Federal spending for non-insurance social programs, as a percentage of Gross National Product, has gone down from 4.2 percent in 1980 to 3.7 percent last year, while defense expenditures have increased during the same period from 5.2 percent to 6.9 percent.

With inflation, the real income of welfare recipients has been reduced nationally by approximately one-third since 1970; in Chicago, for example, the value of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) has been halved during that time.

Poverty Worsened and Deepened

The gap between the rich and poor widened. In 1986, the top one-fifth of American households received 46.1 percent of total income, up from 43.3 percent in 1970, while the income share of the middle three-fifths declined from 52.7 percent to 50.2 percent and that of the poorest one-fifth of households went down from 4.1 percent to 3.8 precent.

Census figures also show that poverty has become more prevalent in America's central cities. There, the poverty rates rose by half from 1969 to 1985--increasing from 12.7 percent to 19 percent, a much steeper rise than for those outside.

Poverty has deepened. Typical poor people of the 1980's living in big cities are farther below the poverty line than their unfortunate counterparts of the 1960's. There was a sharp increase between 1970 and 1982 in the percentage of poor people with incomes less than 75 percent of the poverty line.

Urban poverty has become more persistent. According to Professor Greg J. Duncan of the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center, "the chances a poor person in a highly urbanized county would escape his poverty have fallen substantially since the 1970's,'' after some improvement between the late 1960's and mid-1970's, and are now well below the levels of 20 years ago.

A Growing American 'Underclass'

Blacks and other minorities have made important progress, legally and politically. The black middle class has grown. There were only 200 black elected officials in 1965; by 1986, that figure had mushroomed to 6,500. Blacks and other minorities have made significant inroads into the media, law enforcement, business, and the professions. But progress has slowed, and the Reagan Administration has tried to turn the clock back.

More 'Separate Societies'

The Kerner Report warning is coming true: America is again becoming two separate societies, one black (and, today, we can add Hispanic), one white--separate and unequal.

While there are few all-white neighborhoods, and there is some integration even in black neighborhoods, segregation by race still sharply divides America's cities--in both housing and schools for blacks, and especially in schools for Hispanics. This despite increases in suburbanization and the numbers of blacks and other minorities who have entered the middle class.

For the big cities studied by the Kerner Commission, housing segregation has changed little, if any, and is worse in terms of housing costs for blacks, who are more likely than whites to be renters. Segregation is not just a matter of income; it still cuts across income and education levels. Studies show continued discrimination in housing sales and rentals and in mortgage financing for blacks and Hispanics.

From 1968 to 1984, the number of white students in the public schools dropped by 19 percent, while the number of black students increased by 2 percent. Hispanic student numbers skyrocketed, up 80 percent.

Public schools are becoming more segregated. There has been no national school desegregation progress since the last favorable Supreme Court decision in this field in 1972. After declining from 1968 to 1976, the number of black students enrolled in predominantly minority schools increased from 62.9 percent in 1980 to 63.5 percent in 1984. The percentage for Hispanic students enrolled in minority schools has climbed steadily from 54.8 percent to 70.6 percent during the same period.

University of Chicago political scientist Gary Orfield has found that "a great many black students, and very rapidly growing numbers of Hispanic students, are trapped in schools where more than half of the students drop out, where the average achievement level of those who remain is so low that there is little serious precollegiate instruction, where precollegiate courses and counselors are much less available, and which only prepare students for the least competitive colleges.''

There have been severe cuts in federal student-assistance funds.

The American Council on Education has said that, today, the gap between black and white college-going rates is the largest it has been in more than a quarter of a century.

Greater Racial Contrast

Non-white unemployment in 1968 was 6.7 percent, compared with 3.2 percent for whites. Today, overall employment has doubled, and black unemployment is more than double white unemployment.

Median black family income, as a percentage of median white family income, dropped from 60 percent in 1968 to 57.1 percent in 1986. Those who could be classified as "working poor,'' if they are white--those with annual incomes between $9,941 and $18,700--is the middle class for black families; that is the present range of median black family income.

From these facts of black and Hispanic segregation and inequality, Professor Orfield has concluded that the ghettos and barrios of America's cities are "separate and deteriorating societies, with separate economies, increasingly divergent family structures and basic institutions, and even growing linguistic separation. The physical separation by race, class, and economic situation is much greater than it was in the 1960's, the level of impoverishment, joblessness, educational inequality, and housing even more severe.''

The Urban Underclass

The result is a persistent, large, and growing American urban underclass.

Poverty is both urban and rural, both white and minority. But the great majority of the nation's poor people--70.4 percent in 1985--live in metropolitan areas. From 1974 to 1983, over 33 percent of the highly urban population (those living in the nation's 56 most highly urban counties) was poor at least once, and 5.2 percent was poor at least 80 percent of the time. During the same period, 60 percent of blacks in these areas were poor at least once, and 21.1 percent were poor at least 80 percent of the time.

Central-city poverty has become more concentrated. From 1974 to 1985, in central-city poverty tracts with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more, the numbers of people living in poverty nearly doubled--from 4.1 million to 7.8 million. In areas of extreme poverty--more than 40 percent--the numbers of white families living in poverty went up 44 pecent, the numbers of black families 104 percent, and the numbers of Hispanic families 300 percent.

University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson has found a resulting "rapid social deterioration'' in the inner-city neighborhoods since the Kerner Report, with "sharp increases in social dislocation and the massive breakdown of social institutions in ghetto areas.''

Concentrated poverty is "one of the legacies of racial and class oppression,'' Professor Wilson has stated, and it has produced what he has termed "concentration effects''--the "added constraints and severe restrictions of opportunities associated with living in a neighborhood in which the population is overwhelmingly socially disadvantaged--constraints and opportunities with regard to access to jobs, good schools and other public services, and availability of marriageable partners.'' The result in these concentrated, central-city areas, he has said, is "sharp increases in joblessness, poverty, and the related problems of single-parent households, welfare dependency, housing deterioration, educational failure, and crime.''

National Security Requires New Human Investment

"Quiet riots'' are taking place in America's major cities: unemployment, poverty, social disorganization, segregation, family disintegration, housing and school deterioration, and crime.

These "quiet riots'' may not be as alarming or as noticeable to outsiders--unless they are among the high proportion of Americans who are victimized by crime--but they are even more destructive of human life than the violent riots of 20 years ago.

This destruction of our human capital is a serious threat to America's national security. The Kerner report said: "It is time to make good the promises of American democracy to all citizens--urban and rural, white and black, Spanish-surname, American Indian, and every minority group.''

Such a recommitment now to that kind of human investment could begin to move us once again toward becoming a more stable and secure society of self-esteem.

As former Assistant Attorney General, now Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University, Roger W. Wilkins has said, "The problem is not a problem of defective people; the problem is a problem of a defective system.''

We know what should be done.

Jobs. Jobs are the greatest need. Full employment is the best anti-poverty program. An economic policy of stabilization, greater spending for targeted social programs, low interest rates, and greater growth are essential. (A 1 percent decline in unemployment could reduce the federal deficit by $30 billion.)

We need a strong public jobs program; there is plenty of infrastructure work that needs doing. The minimum wage must be raised. The tax laws should be changed further to see that the working poor get to keep more of their earnings. Increased training for jobs, as well as a sound national day-care program for mothers who want to work, must be provided.

Welfare. We should provide better income for those who cannot work or find work. There should be national standards for AFDC.

Desegregation. A stronger fair-housing law should be passed, and it and other affirmative-action laws vigorously enforced. More large-scale desegregation of schools is needed; where such actions have been tried, they have worked and produced stability over long periods of time. A majority of Americans under 30, as well as a majority of college students as a group, support such desegregation. So do two-thirds of the families whose children have actually been bussed for desegregation purposes.

Affirmative Action. Vigorous enforcement of equal-employment-opportunity and affirmative-action laws is vital. Where public funds or subsidies are used, there must be strict requirements for affirmative-action and contract compliance.

Health. We need to extend national health insurance to more Americans, including the requirement of health insurance as a part of job benefits. This is important if we are to change our present two-tiered system, composed of those covered by health insurance and those who are not.

General. Childhood development is basically important; we know that programs like Head Start work, and they now are advocated by corporate leaders like those on the Committee for Economic Development. So does the Job Corps. We should give these programs added support. We should replicate successes in inner-city schools like those in Minneapolis.

These things are do-able. And we have the means. Doubling the percentage of the federal budget that now goes for job training, education, and community development, for example, would still only be roughly equal to the percentage increase in military spending since 1980.

The numbers of people in the underclass are relatively small. Improving their chances and their lives is increasingly in the self-interest of whites as whites become a declining proportion of America's population. Further, the fact that the labor force is shrinking as a percentage of total population should be seen as an increasing opportunity for finding work for the chronically unemployed.

We must find the will. A majority of Americans support increased spending for social programs (and believe that the military budget is the best place for cuts). They support the idea that more should be done to give a hand to black people and other minorities.

The problem is that, because we made progress for a time, most Americans--as well as American policymakers--likely think that we are still making progress or that most inequalities have disappeared. This is not true.

We must bring the problems of race, unemployment, and poverty back into the public conciousness, put them back on the public agenda.

That is our purpose in making this new report.

Participants in the National Conference on "The Kerner Report: Twenty Years Later'' included:
Fred R. Harris, professor of political science, University of New Mexico and Roger W. Wilkins, professor of history, George Mason University, co-chairmen; Jorge Chapa, professor of sociology, University of California, Berkeley; William R. Carmack, professor of communications, University of Oklahoma; Lynn A. Curtis, president, Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation; Greg J. Duncan, program director, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan; David Ginsburg, Attorney, Washington, D.C.; David Hamilton, professor emeritus of economics, University of New Mexico; Donna E. Shalala, chancellor, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Gregory D. Squires, chairman, department of sociology, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee; LaDonna Harris, president and executive director, Americans for Indian Opportunity; Henry B. Taliaferro Jr., Attorney, Oklahoma City; John Herbers, distinguished lecturer in journalism, University of Maryland; Ronald B. Mincy, visiting scholar, The Urban Institute, University of Delaware; Gary Orfield, professor of political science, University of Chicago; Gary D. Sandefur, associate director, Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin, Madison; F. Harold Wilson, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, Bowdoin College; Richard Nathan, professor of public and international affairs, Princeton University; Willaim Julius Wilson, professor of sociology and public policy, University of Chicago.

Vol. 07, Issue 27

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories