Monday, April 29, 2013

the urban fire next time...,


NYTimes | Compare the current conditions in urban America with those in the early 1980s, when the nation saw a less severe recession, yet neighborhoods were deteriorating and violent crime was much higher. Cities were trying to overcome a range of economic and demographic transformations: the loss of manufacturing jobs, the migration of whites and middle-class minorities out of central city neighborhoods and declining tax revenues.

Meanwhile, cities saw their federal aid decline rapidly as the Reagan administration slashed programs like the Community Development Block Grant and public housing.

The consequences were predictable. Housing agencies were unable to maintain their complexes. Public schools crumbled, police forces were overwhelmed. Public transit deteriorated. It took two decades for many cities to recover.

There are many factors that help explain the difference between now and then, but I believe the primary one is the unpopular, $840 billion fiscal stimulus program in 2009, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.

Many of the largest and most important investments made by the “stimulus” went to institutions and organizations that were essential to functioning communities. Abandoned homes did not become hot spots for crime because almost $2 billion went to acquiring, renovating or demolishing them.

Class sizes did not swell and police officers did not disappear from city streets because stimulus money was used to stabilize state budgets, improve underperforming schools and rehire officers for community-oriented policing.

The question is, what comes next, now that the stimulus is over? A historical perspective on urban policy reveals a cycle in which periods of major investment are followed by periods of neglect, disinvestment and decline. This pattern is in the process of repeating.

The early days of the Obama administration saw the announcement of a White House Office of Urban Policy, the unveiling of several high-profile programs to invest in urban communities, and the passage of the stimulus. But the Office of Urban Policy never took off, programs like “Promise Neighborhoods” have been diluted by the political process, and the stimulus money has been spent. In the cycle of urban policy making, we are entering another period of neglect.

To end this cycle requires a shift in the federal approach to urban policy. Our nation’s cities and suburbs do not need more initiatives that are unveiled with fanfare and then abandoned a few years later. Urban communities and the institutions within them need a sustained commitment from the federal government, a durable policy agenda with the capacity to generate change in America’s most disadvantaged communities.

Such an agenda does not require a vast influx of new money, but it does mean a shift of priorities. For example, the growing segregation of the rich from the poor could be slowed by a federal effort to counter the practice of exclusionary zoning, which allows localities to exclude low-income residents by restricting the types of housing that can be built.

The risks associated with growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood could be mitigated if money being used to imprison our young people went instead to re-integrating former prisoners into society, bolstering connections between the police and community groups and maintaining clean streets and safe parks.

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