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Our Cities Are Devastated -- Will Obama Bail Out Urban America?

40 years of benign (and not so benign) neglect have done inordinate damage to the socioeconomic structures of our inner cities.
 
 
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Forty years ago this month, President Richard Nixon, HUD Secretary George Romney and Washington Mayor Walter Washington took a walk around the nation's capital -- in particular Mount Vernon Square, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the April 1968 rioting after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

The trio marched up Seventh Street, examining the cleanup efforts and chatting about plans for a new park. One of the hundreds of bystanders shouted, "Soul Brother!" Nixon smiled and began shaking hands with the crowd. "You help the mayor now," he said. The crowd cheered.

Two weeks earlier, Nixon had promised, in his inaugural address, to continue the government's efforts to help the inner-city poor. "Those who have been left out, we will try to bring in," he said. "Those left behind, we will help to catch up." Over the course of his administration, though, Nixon froze, and then slashed, the budgets of countless War on Poverty programs while reneging on his promises to support inner-city entrepreneurship and "black capitalism."

After rising throughout the 1960s, urban black incomes stagnated in the 1970s. Crime rates, already rising, skyrocketed; unemployment exploded. In many cities today, education and income levels for African Americans are stuck in a time warp circa 1969, even as the country as a whole has grown rapidly. Indeed, when observers bemoan the state of American education or income inequality, they are really bemoaning the state of American cities today.

Now another president has promised to tackle America's urban crisis. In many ways, Barack Obama represents the end of the era Nixon launched, when suburban conservatives from both parties campaigned against the nation's cities. A big-city, northern Democrat, Obama has committed himself to the nation's cities: He created an Office of Urban Affairs to coordinate policy across the federal government; he picked strong, innovative urban reformers to run the departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development; and he pushed for billions in city-friendly funds in the recently signed stimulus package.

But intention is one thing; results are another. Will Obama's first steps add up to change for America's cities? It's early yet, but there's reason for skepticism.

First, Obama has been careful with his words: There is a difference between the ghettos and other low-income parts of the inner city and the "urban areas" that will fall under the purview of the Office of Urban Affairs. Those include not only the core districts of America's hundreds of "metros," but far-cast suburbs and exurbs -- not just the Bronx, but Teaneck, N.J. and Greenwich, Conn.

Tying all these areas together, reducing pollution and sprawl, is a national priority, but it shouldn't be confused with helping America's millions of economically and socially isolated urban populations.

Second, the funding formulas for such supposedly city-friendly projects like mass transit and education too often get funneled through states, not the cities themselves. That's different from the Great Society era, when the federal government directly funded municipal projects like schools and water quality.

One reason for the shift, of course, was to reduce the influence of big-city liberals. But the result is that state-level politicians are able to capture and spend federal monies in whatever way they choose, and that usually means doling out cash in disproportionate amounts to rural and suburban areas. After all, politicians from rural Illinois need votes just as much as those representing Southside Chicago.

Third, there is education, the civil rights issue of the 21st century. The crisis in American education isn't really about middle-class, suburban schools. It's about the hundreds of substandard urban school districts that release millions of young Americans every year into the work force unprepared to compete in a global economy.

A study commissioned by America's Promise Alliance found a striking gap in graduation rates between urban and suburban high schools -- 75.4 percent of suburban students graduate, but only 58 percent in urban school districts end up with a degree. And as any economist will tell you, when it comes to education equality, our failure to address poor schools isn't just a crime against students -- it condemns the nation as a whole to lower economic growth.

Obama talks a good game on the importance of improving urban education, but it might be his single toughest challenge, and it's not yet clear he's up to it. The world of education policy is currently at war: One side says progress can only come after changes are made in inner-city students' family and extracurricular lives, while the other wants reform to focus on teacher quality and accountability. The former supports funding for existing programs; the latter, more choice for parents, including charter schools.

But whether it makes a difference in those communities depends less on policy than politics. If Obama sides too strongly with the reformers, he will find himself stuck in the same rut that confronts Washington schools chief Michelle Rhee in her effort to erode teacher tenure: Heavy opposition from unions and teachers' colleges, enough to make all but incremental changes impossible.

Obama's first priority, now that he has the money, must be to cool down the conflict and make it more of a discussion than a war, to bring all sides together as mutually respecting stakeholders. Whether he can is an open question.

Finally, there is the matter of vision. Why are cities important in the first place? On the campaign trail, Obama promised a new approach to urban policy, one that treated cities not as basket cases but as potential engines of growth. That's absolutely the right way to frame things, but with an asterisk. Cities are important because they are the necessary nuclei to America's metropolitan future. They are still the gateways for the millions of immigrants who replenish our economy. And by virtue of their density, they are the font of our diverse culture and values.

But economic growth should be the goal, not the means to an end. The former means recognizing that many urban centers have a long way to go before they can sustain equitable, broad-based growth. It means making investments in things like education, small-business development and crime prevention, items that carry huge up-front costs that won't pay off for years. It means accepting that not all government spending should be weighed on a cost-benefit scale.

The latter, however, can too easily translate to things like big-business incentives and mass transit aimed more at suburban access than urban mobility, programs that quickly boost tax bases but in the long run shortchange lower-income urban dwellers. This has been the mistake of generations of urban leaders, and it is why the current boom in urban growth is so lopsided, so heavily tilted toward transient, yuppie lifestyles and exclusive entertainment venues, rather than publicly shared resources like schools and parks.

We are now seeing why such an urban strategy, built on the consumption patterns of the rich (or soon-to-be rich) is unsustainable. It relies on high commercial and residential real estate values, and it constructs urban environments that play only to those classes that can afford them. When home and office prices plunge -- along with their occupants' incomes -- cities suffer disproportionately.

Forty years of benign (and not so benign) neglect have done inordinate damage to the socioeconomic structures of our inner cities, even as the rest of America has forgotten these places exist. It's not enough just to talk about cities. Obama is on the right track; now he has to show that he not only cares about cities, but understands them as well.

Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination.