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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.