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Banfield's Back

BRASS TACKS

By Jim Crumer

YOU ONLY have to walk through the not-so-well-off sections of any big city in the United States to realize the absurdity of President Ford's remarks made earlier this year that the urban crisis of the 1960s is over. Similarly, a few years back, when the need for massive welfare programs to the urban poor was so obvious, Daniel P. Moynihan presented and the Nixon administration later championed the doctrine of "benign neglect" towards blacks.

Statements so at odds with visible urban needs--like "benign' neglect"--lead us to believe that our nation's policy makers are simply too lazy to walk a few blocks beyond their Washington office buildings. But more likely, at least in the case of the Nixon administration, the policy-makers probably stole a glance down the street and then opened up their copies of Edward C. Banfield's Unheavenly City to understand what they saw.

Banfield, who will be returning to Harvard after three years at Pennsylvania, is like the professional athlete who is always dubbed "controversial" by the sports writers. He wears the label but few really know how he earned it. He is controversial largely because in Unheavenly City and again in his most recent work, Unheavenly City Revisited, Banfield attempts to define the real issues that make up the urban crisis. The controversy is fanned when he reaches conclusions that those enamored of Great Society philosophies find disturbing and radical groups feel are racist and simply wrong.

What mostly upsets Banfield's critics is that he finds that there is no urban crisis--or at least no crisis that can't be corrected by that conservative weapon of time. And he makes it explicit that he wants time and only time to solve problems--not federally-funded aid programs to the poor, like housing programs under the Housing and Urban Development Department and the Office of Economic Opportunity that President Nixon cut back drastically while Banfield was his urban consultant. In Banfield's book these programs only serve to exacerbate problems of city-dwellers.

But that isn't all. His hardline "pragmatic conservatism" (which has liberals reeling because it scorns their programs aimed at the heart of the poverty cycle) has its roots in principles violently antithetical to the radicals, such as SDS and the Committee Against Racism, two groups that shouted Banfield down during a lecture he gave at the University of Chicago last year. These principles are expressed in Banfield's theory of the class imperative. To Banfield the problems that do exist in the city, although minor ones compared to earlier days, are problems not of economic distribution or political power, but of cultural class--particularly the culture of the "lower class."

The lower class differs from what he calls "normal" classes--that is the upper, middle, and working classes--in that its members place self-gratification and immediate satisfaction above future orientation and upward mobility. Banfield believes that as long as this group continues to dwell in the cities in fairly large numbers as it does now, the cities will always be unheavenly.

Under Banfield's own classification system, those who are in the upper classes are those who worry about mankind: the middle class, about making it; the working class, about family; while the lower class is worried only about immediate bodily needs, especially sex, and has little interest in the public good. If the lower class does not care about the future then it will be immune to the deterrent factors of crime control and will riot and steal simply because the self-interest of its culture dictates such actions. Banfield tells us to scrap plans to build better schools or houses, or allocate more welfare for the lower classes because lower-class culture can't be changed by wasteful alterations in society or environment, no matter how large-scale. Possibly one way we can change the effects of lower-class culture, Banfield postulates, is to auction off its members' babies to the highest "normal" class bidder.

Where Banfield runs into most of his problems is in his definition of lower class, which, he admits, encompasses a large percentage of the nation's black people; hence the label "racist" plagues Banfield where ever he goes. In a certain sense that title is undeserved, because Banfield's disdain does not end with lower class blacks--it pervades to all members of the lower class.

What Banfield is subtly arguing for is a new kind of rugged individualism. If the lower class is to follow the good path of middle-classification, its members must work hard and forego the sex and action of the streets. They must adopt the Protestant work ethic and not squander their meager pay checks on liquor or drugs. But where is the lower class person to get the job that will give him the chance to put the nose to the grindstone? Only through eliminating minimum wage laws does Banfield say these jobs will be forthcoming.

What Banfield has created through his logic of individualism is a rationale for the cancellation of all types of assistance programs by saying "do it yourself." Thus instead of federal funds tagged for specific ills of the poor we get Nixonian revenue sharing where the money goes directly to the cities, without any federal guidance. The funds often end up being used for increased control over city dwellers rather than welfare programs. Banfield wants to insure that the lower class members have a chance to make it on their own, and he believes that programs that dwell on and pamper them simply make them soft and ask for more. Welfare feeds on a psychology that keeps its recipients in the urban ghettoes in the first place.

Why we must read and understand Banfield is not because of his theories on future and present orientation. Rather it is because Banfield was chairman of Nixon's task force on model cities, and his chief urban consultant, and his books present about the only insight to programs that seem so contrary to the needs of the poor.

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