In Chicago, nearly 25 per cent of the tracks are in such poor condition that trains designed to travel more than 50 miles per hour often go no faster than 5 miles per hour. (Photo: Marcel Marchon)

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Cities are the most neglected
layer of American government

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

1 January 2008: Eighty per cent of Americans live in metropolitan areas comprised of hub cities and surrounding suburbs. Metro economies account for 87 per cent of America’s total economic output. Central cities, in other words, are major generators of wealth that attract business, labor, tourists, and investment. One might expect that the health of central cities would be at the forefront of debate during the presidential election campaign, yet candidates pay little attention to cities.

Certainly, issues like immigration, jobs, schools, crime, and poverty are debated vigorously. But these are suburban and rural issues, as much as urban, and there is no acknowledgement from the presidential candidates that cities could be agents for national change in these and other areas.

The weakest level of government
Cities are the weakest level of American government. Most depend on the property tax – one of the most regressive taxes – as their primary revenue source. Compared to the federal and state governments, American cities have limited spending powers. They cannot run deficits, and their ability to issue and manage debt is relatively restricted.  Moreover, federal and state governments routinely underfund social services, education, infrastructure, public safety, and other services crucial to cities.

In Boston, for example, there is money only to maintain the city’s aging subway system, not upgrade it. In Chicago, nearly 25 per cent of the subway and elevated train tracks are in such poor condition that trains designed to travel more than 50 miles per hour often go no faster than 5 miles per hour. Subways in New York, the nation’s largest city, and Washington, the nation’s capital, are seriously overcrowded.

Speaking of US urban transit systems, Chris Kozeb of the National Transit Institute says, “We keep them alive, but we never give enough to cure what ails them.”

Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington simply lack the money to do all that’s asked of them, a story that is repeated in cities across the US regarding not only mass transit but a wide range of public services.

When the Congressional Quarterly Press issued its annual crime rankings in autumn 2007 – including a list of the nation’s most dangerous cities – many mayors took offense at the bad publicity. But the reality is that American mayors have few resources to deal with the underlying social indicators such as teen pregnancy, poor schools, single-parent families, substance abuse, dilapidated housing, and racism that could change the crime statistics.

Hostility toward cities
America’s traditional ambivalence toward cities - Thomas Jefferson considered them both “corrupters of morals” and “beacons of culture”- has turned more aggressive in the past 50 years.

In the 1960s and 70s, the nascent neoconservative movement gained momentum for its agenda of reducing the size and power of government primarily by attacking cities and city dwellers.

“The lower-class individual lives in the slum and sees no reason to complain,” wrote political scientist Edward Banfield in 1968. “He does not care how dirty and dilapidated his housing is either inside or out, nor does he mind the inadequacy of such public facilities as schools, parks and libraries.”

George Gilder, founder of the neoconservative Discovery Institute, broadened Banfield’s critique to encompass the entire city. “The problem with cities today is that they are parasites,” said Gilder. “And those cities will have to go off the dole.”

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, the first neoconservative president, drastically reduced federal support for cities. When Reagan took office in 1981, federal dollars accounted for 22 per cent of central city budgets. When he left office eight years later, it was down to 6 per cent.

Reagan often told the story of a “welfare queen” in Chicago who drove a Cadillac and had received $150,000 in welfare checks from the government using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen Social Security cards, and four fictional dead husbands. In response, Reagan promised to roll back social welfare programs in addition to cutting direct federal aid to cities. It was discovered that Reagan’s welfare cheat never existed. Nevertheless, he kept repeating the anecdote, powerfully disseminating his belief that cities and city residents are the feckless authors of their own misfortune.

More recently, neo-conservatives have sought to drive deeper the wedge between city dwellers and others. “New Yorkers don’t really see themselves as part of the rest of America,” said pundit Ann Coulter in 2004. “Americans understand that Manhattan is the Soviet Union.”

Presidential politics
Democrat Barack Obama is the only major presidential candidate with an explicit urban agenda.  If elected, Obama promises to create a White House Office of Urban Policy that coordinates all federal programs for cities and reports directly to the President. The Office of Urban Policy would focus federal resources on eliminating concentrated poverty and other pathologies of American inner-city slums, which Obama asserts is the key to the prosperity of the entire city.

Obama’s proposal has not been mentioned in the two dozen or so presidential debates that have occurred to date. Curiously, the topic of cities has not been discussed at all, despite the multitude of new studies showing that national prosperity is tied to the rising affluence of urban dwellers.

These studies show that American cities are the nation’s economic and creative drivers. Cities, of course, have enormous problems. They in fact reflect almost all of America’s social and environmental problems, and so one could reasonably conclude that it is in our cities that changes must begin and the solutions be found.

National vision needed
As the federal government has reduced its support for cities over the past 30 years, mayors have been compelled to innovate. On environmental sustainability, transportation, public safety, education, public health, immigration, and many other issues, the true innovators in the US have been central city mayors.

It might therefore appear obvious that mayors have unrivalled competence in understanding and dealing with problems that impact the nation. Yet no presidential candidate has created or proposed, for example, a national advisory board of mayors.

Solving the problems of the 21st century will likely require a new partnership between mayors and the federal government. It will require an admission at the national level that urbanity will shape this century even more than the last one.

It has been decades since the US has had a comprehensive program let alone a vision for cities. The laissez-faire approach impedes metropolitan and national progress and guarantees urban deterioration.

World Mayor 2023