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Pat and Dick

Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding: Community Action in the War on Poverty By Daniel P. Moynihan. Free Press; $5.95.

By David I. Bruck

IF THE LARGE number of typographical errors in Daniel P. Moynihan's new study of the War on Poverty are any indication, the book was put out in quite a hurry. Since its publication roughly coincided with President Nixon's inauguration and Professor Moynihan's own installation as Nixon's urban advisor, it seems likely that Moynihan intends the book to serve as something of a theoretical preview of how he will approach his new job.

Two ideas in this book set Moynihan off from the "mainstream" of American liberal thought on racial matters. The first idea is that the situation of American blacks is largely similar to that of other ethnic groups which have assimilated successfully into the majority culture. One senses in this book a tone of moral disapproval towards blacks who haven't acquired the civility of the rising Irish: if the poor of today could only become as self-respecting and self-reliant as the Irish were in their day, the "racial" problem would solve itself.

The second idea which sets Moynihan apart from more conventional liberals is his concern with the "silent majority" of Americans who are worried about violence and disorder. Borrowing from Emile Durkheim, and more particularly from the conservative American sociologist Robert A. Nisbet, Moynihan argues that the central problem of modern civilization is to overcome the atomization of society into disoriented individuals through the conscious strengthening of groups and group norms. This effort--Nisbet's "quest for community"--is in Moynihan's view the origin of lower middle-class "reaction' to lower-class violence, which is seen as disorienting, destabilizing, and therefore frightening.

Moynihan's current books sets out to attack what he perceives as an example of the misuse of the social sciences by government--the Community Action Program of President Johnson's War on Poverty. Drawing primarily on a Harvard senior thesis written by Richard Blumenthal for Professor Banfield two years ago, Moynihan traces community action from its intellectual genesis in the late fifties through its adoption by the Kennedy Administration, and finally to its apparent decline at the end of the Johnson years.

While the theoretical foundations of community action appear to have been vastly different for its various backers, the prevalent theory holds that the poor--and particularly the black urban poor--are bound in their poverty by their political powerlessness, by their inability to deal effectively on their own behalf, or to influence the decisions which most directly concern them. Community action was seen in Washington during the early years of the War on Poverty as a means of correcting this political problem by creating organizations for the poor--organizations which would represent them and their interests in the struggles of pluralist politics.

Obviously, if community action organizations were to represent the interests of the poor, then the poor themselves would have to participate in their formation--hence the famous formula for maximum feasible participation of community residents in all phases of community action programs. Moynihan points out rather interestingly that this formula entered the War on Poverty draft legislation not out of considerations of big city politics, but rather as a device to ensure that community action funds would reach the black poor in the South rather than their white overlords. whatever its origins, however, maximum feasible participation soon became the kingpin of a federal intervention in hundreds of American cities which was more or less effectively setting up centers of urban political power removed from City Hall.

IT WAS AT this point in the history of community action, Moynihan argues, that the critical distortion of the program occurred. Organizations which has been originally intended to foster pride and self-confidence among the poor while working in coordination with established political and bureaucratic agencies now became intensely antagonistic towards these agencies, and began acting out spasmodic revolts in the streets. The agents of this transformation were middle-class reformers (variously characterized as from New York, "liberal-radical," and Jewish) who were beginning to use the frustrations of the poor in order to vent their won hostility towards American society. The result was conspicuous turmoil, destructive infighting among basically pro-poor forces, and worst of all, a rise in the sense of disorder and chaos which Moynihan sees as the problem most troubling to the non-poor majority of Americans today.

Moynihan argues that the community action programs--although generally innocent in conception--quickly turned into federally-created Frankensteins whose only ascertainable result was to raise the level of community conflict in cities all over the country. Since the role of governments should be, he feels, to counteract the fragmentation and anomie inherent in industrial civilization--to lead in the quest for community--the conflict created by the community action programs was in itself undesirable.

MOYNIHAN does not quite say that the community action programs should never have been implemented. It seems safe to infer that this is his belief, since he tells his readers that he argued against community action at the outset, and goes on to credit the programs with helping to create the atmosphere for riots on one side and the rise of George Wallace on the other. But he emphasizes throughout the book that what he is primarily concerned with is the broader problem of the application of social science to public policy. What disturbs Moynihan about the Community Action Program is that its beneftis were never convincingly demonstrated in a quantitative, scientific manner. That the Program has certain harmful effects is something which we are to consider as proved by his subjective accounts of various local instances: the positive results must, however, be vigorously demonstrated.

Perhaps this is not entirely unfair: a government program should not be automatically considered worthwhile simply because its actual harmfulness cannot be proved. But Moynihan's insistence that government programs be able to justify themselves with hard scientific data may prove to be even less helpful than the less rigorous approach of the Office for Economic Opportunity.

Perhaps a more telling criticism to be made of the community action programs is not that they created too much social conflict, but that they were intrinsically weak because they were contrived by the very power structure which they tried to confront. Moynihan recognizes this fact, although for theoretical reasons he does not emphasize it. The ability of the federal government to intervene in local politics is considerable, but it is not unlimited. When the OEO-sponsored community action groups began to make too much trouble for the city halls and the state houses, word quickly got back to Washington that it was time to start phasing out the community action groups. The power of these groups--like all "power" that is given rather than won--turned out not to be power at all. Within the next few months their remaining "power" will probably be reappropriated by the federal government, and that will be the end of that.

AS IT EMERGES in this book, Moynihan's basic outlook is one of contentment. Of course he is aware, as everyone is, that America still has a lot of problems. But like most contemporary American social theorists, Moynihan views America's troubles as residual, as the unfinished business of a society which has on the whole found satisfactory answers for its problems. He deplores the Vietnam war as a tragic waste of resources, but sees no particular link between wasteful military expenditures and Keynesian economic planning, which he praises as the basis of "the singularly successful political economy of the 1960's." An economic explanation of racism is dismissed as vulgar Marxism. Black poverty, he feels, can be explained in terms of economic and sociological processes which are mainly internal to the ghetto rather than imposed from outside. Given this view, the vast changes which have transformed the American economy since the time when the Jews, Italians, and Irish were fighting their way up can be ignored: the rationalization and consolidation of once-marginal areas of economic activity need not be seen as closing off the traditional avenues to group advancement.

So optimistic a view may yet prove justified, but it doesn't seem likely. If the barriers to economic progress for blacks are as intangible and as subject to remedial manipulation as Moynihan believes, then it is hard to see why these barriers have proved so difficult to overcome.

As Moynihan rather disarmingly admits, however, poverty experts depend for their jobs and influence on the belief that poverty can be overcome through government action that will have no effects on the non-poor majority or on the whole social structure. There is little evidence to support this belief, but it obviously has plenty of bureaucratic strength behind it, and therefore the arguments over poverty in America will continue to be arguments between reform-mongers and other reform mongers. Some reform-mongers will be more activist than others; some will street jobs more than political readjustment; others will stress political adjustments more than jobs. That is where the debate is now, and it looks like that is where the debate will stay.

THIS IS NOT to say that the arguments in Washington have no importance, or that we should pay no attention to them. Moynihan may be more right than he knows: the new administration which he serves was elected by the "non-poor, non-rich" to whose fears he devotes so much attention, and a right-wing reaction may be on the way which will show the American left that the established institutions, whatever their failings, are not "irrelevant" to its concerns.

The possibility of such a reaction haunts this book. As I read it, I had the feeling that should this reaction materialize fully, Moynihan may well find himself in the role of its chief intellectual apologist.

It should be noted that Moynihan's own solutions to poverty in America, while they may have no more potential for success than those of his predecessors, are at least fairly ambitious: he has long argued for the need to spend large amounts of money in fighting poverty through such innovations as family allowances and guaranteed employment. But judging by President Nixon's message on poverty last week, there is little reason to believe that Moynihan has brought the Administration over to his side on these issues. On the other hand, Moynihan's conservative analysis of the community action programs--an analysis which amounts, in reality, to little more than a claim that middle-class outside-agitators have been making trouble by stirring up the normally docile black folk in the ghettos--contains the seeds of an intellectually serviceable ideology of repression. It is but a short step from Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding to the proposition that government should avoid doing anything that might raise expectations, among the poor, while doing as much as possible to repress violence. After all, would not such a policy best serve the immediate need for community and security of the large majority of Americans?

Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding gives a fairly clear idea of what Moynihan will try to avoid. What he will be ale to accomplish is much less clear. The next four years may well show that the "quest for community" is not the stuff of which social progress is made.

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