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Voices of crisis in the cities

To many American city dwellers things look different, and worse, than in the 1960s; expectations have been raised, and then betrayed. But there are other voices, too, ot those who refuse to give in -- yet.

This is the finding of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). Conscious of the problems of the urban poor and the dangerous degree of crisis in cities, the committee recently held small, informal gatherings with people living within the urban crisis. They are people with whom AFSC has had previous working contact -- young and old, black, Hispanic and white -- in Newark, Atlanta, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, and Detroit.

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A young person on the Lower East Side of New York City: "They're treating us like junk." From Atlanta: "We may see a level of social unrest, crimes, that we haven't seen since the '60s. It will be worse. . . . There will be a greater sense of despair." From Newark: "All these [federal budget] cuts seem designed to hurt black, third-world, or poor people. All the cuts willm hurt poor people. Sometimes I wonder if it was intentional." From milwaukee: "For City Hall we [ Hispanic people] don't exist."

What comes through most strongly in these gatherings is that some people -- poor people, racial minorities language minorities, women heading households -- are expendable,m that they are perceived as having no value to the economy, to society, even to themselves. The urban crisis, we believe, is the end result of viewing some people as "junk."

There are rising crime rates and tightening police controls, clogged courts and crowded jails, deteriorating and near-bankrupt systems of public transportation, education, and sanitation. Added to these are the Reagan administration's drastic cuts in virtually every service directed to the poor, the enhanced benefits to the affluent, and the block grants to the states which eliminate targeting of the remaining funds to those who are the most needy and wipe out the community role in making decisions abot the allocation of these resources.

Over and over, people spoke of jobs as the central issue and of the elimination of government-supported jobs and training opportunities as the ultimate devastation.

From Newark: "The cuts ae going to force more and more people into the streets, and more and more people on welfare rolls. There, you run into another problem, because that is also going to be cut. So what are these people supposed to do? We're just going to bring them right back to crime, because they're going to do something to live. They can't work, they can't get in a training program, they can't get welfare. so how is ti proposed that a man or woman can take care of a family?

What alternatives to despair are being offered?

From Atlanta: "I think that the federal government definitely has to be involved in providing jobs for low-income people. There should be free job training. The private sector has a role, to work with the federal government to provide job opportunities."

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From Milwaukee: "The answer could be in our own community, to begin to organize and to create a process of education, a political awareness of who is responsible for what."

From a senior citizen in New York: "I think we still have to stir up a litle trouble, in spite of our age, or maybe because of it."

The challenge is to respond to these and similar communities of poor and powerless people, to find and involve those who still have a measure of hope that change can be brought about, to strengthen communities capacity to define their goals and to help them gain access to the means (organization, skills, information, and resources) of reaching these goals and moving toward the basic change that is so desperately needed. This is a challenge that demands strong responses from private agencies, and from government at all levels.

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