There is a bill currently languishing in Congress that addresses the fact that our cities, the richest in the world, are rushing headlong into entropy. The bill is called the "American Community Renewal Act," and it seeks to do something about the fact that our urban structures are decaying, criminals are stalking our city streets, and the hopes of our inner-city children are too often crushed beneath negative expectations.

The statistics are disconcerting: According to the National Assessment Governing Board, 54% of black high school seniors have "below basic" reading skills. Public housing is deteriorating, while the violent crime rate, though it has decreased somewhat recently, has soared 280% since 1965. Meanwhile, although teen pregnancy is down, the out-of-wedlock birthrate has increased nearly sixfold over the last 35 years. As the nuclear family goes "boom," so do our communities--72% of adolescent murderers come from homes without fathers.

The government's solution has been to funnel billions of dollars into public education, assisted housing, and crime prevention. Anywhere that cameras click, politicians can be seen unveiling new spending increases.

Sadly, federal money alone cannot raise our children.

If our urban centers have deteriorated, this is plainly a matter of social conditioning. We live up to social expectations, even if they are negative. Inner-city children are carefully taught their roles. A little boy watches his mother sell drugs, or his brother join a gang. He watches his teachers succumb to frustration. All around him, he sees hope stunted. These brutal lessons are learned young, and so they tend to stick.

This key point is not missed by the American Community Renewal Act, which seeks to shift government emphasis away from arbitrary spending to those institutions that nurture individual virtue and meaning. Backers of the act hope to cultivate the expectation of other possibilities in our urban communities. For genuine change starts not with federal dollars, but with a child's ability to affix value, hope, and meaning to his or her existence. First we must endow our inner-city youths with the expectation of "other" possibilities. Then--and only then--will the community begin to prosper.

In a nutshell, the Community Renewal Act would use targeted tax-cut programs and economic incentives to encourage the development of small businesses and better housing opportunities while engaging the support of religious organizations to provide positive role models or even the expectation of success in poor neighborhoods. Rather than continuing to administer aid like some subtle narcotic, the renewal act empowers citizens to take ownership of the problem. Presently, that same tax money is being used to provide welfare, with the effect of encouraging idleness instead of subsidizing opportunity. Little will change in the new millennium until the government focuses on energizing those urban institutions that speak directly and potently to strengthening private virtue.

Fortunately, countless community groups have already taken up this cause. These groups have a voice in the community. They can teach our children that there is an alternative. By empowering these groups through tax breaks and economic incentives, the government can energize our communities from the inside out.

Some examples of the sort of charitable organizations that the American Community Renewal Act is seeking to empower include the Jewish Family Services, Catholic Relief Services, United Way, and the Salvation Army.

By altering the internal complexion of our inner cities, we can alter economic hierarchies, we can alter social conditioning, and we can alter social expectations. Progress, in this regard, will turn largely on honest people working together to create jobs and role models for our inner-city youths.

That is precisely what the Community Renewal Act is designed to do.

Sadly, the bill remains held up in Congress, the victim of political infighting. The Democrats have recoiled from the legislation, because it is aimed at strengthening individual virtue. They are much more comfortable funneling our tax dollars into more impartial and arbitrary-minded institutions, like the federal bureaucracy. Meanwhile, a single truth falls by the wayside: that cultivating the expectation of success in our children is a higher law.

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