THE BLOG

America's Cities: An 'Urban Crisis' Ignored

03/24/2015 07:08 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2015

Are America's major cities dying? The answer is yes, no and maybe depending on the city or where one looks within it.

Many of our large cities are places where the infrastructure is decaying, neighborhoods are deteriorating, and hopes are dimming for a large number of citizens. Many of them are also places where each one tells a tale of two cities -- for the wealthy few it is the best of times, for those of lesser means it is the worst of times.

Derek Thompson illustrates this contradiction, in a recent article where he notes that among the cities at the top of the list that have the "highest inter-generational mobility -- that is, the best odds that a child born into a low income household will move up into the middle" -- are the "rich coastal metropolises including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, San Diego and New York City."

Thompson then points out that these same five cities are included in the list of the 10 least affordable cities in the United States in which to own a home based upon the median income in them compared to monthly home payments. He goes on to note that "In America's 100 biggest metro areas, six in 10 homes are considered 'within reach' of the middle class. But in the 20 richest cities, fewer than half are."

That is some of the place-specific data regarding cities and urban areas. The general data is even less encouraging.

In a 2013 article, Tracey Ross of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress highlights the fact that 20.9 percent of the population in cities is poor compared to 11.4 percent in the suburbs. She adds, "we have yet to win the war on urban poverty, and several challenges persist for poor city residents including poverty, crime, affordable-housing shortages, a lack of investment in good public transit systems, job loss, and segregation."

We would take that assessment one step further -- not only has America not won the war on urban poverty, it has essentially abandoned it. It has declared victory and turned its attention elsewhere. The term "urban crisis" has disappeared from our vocabulary.

With the exception of the extreme cases like Detroit's bankruptcy, large cities are no longer front and center in the public discussion and political decision-making. In the 21st century, the focus tends to be on suburbs, metropolitan areas, rural areas and states.

It didn't used to be that way. In the 1960s and '70s, the circumstances of cities received significant attention and there was considerable debate about whether there was and what do about the nation's "urban crisis."

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote a seminal book titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In her book, Ms. Jacobs decried the decline of cities which she attributed to urban planning that benefited the central business districts at the expense of local neighborhoods and communities. Her writing was extremely influential with a few decades of planners and community activists.

In 1966, after the urban riots of 1965, a report from the Illinois Assembly on the States and Its Cities concluded that the State of Illinois had not given sufficient attention to the needs of urban areas. Five years later in 1971 in a follow-up report, the Illinois Assembly on the States and the Urban Crisis concluded "that in the intervening years the state response to urban problems has been considerable, but massive problems remain."

In 1970, political scientist Edward C. Banfield and advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, wrote a classic text,The Unheavenly City: The Nature and Future of the Urban Crisis in which he asserted that the urban crisis was overstated. In 1974, Banfield wrote a sequel titled, The Unheavenly City Revisited in which he argued that things were getting better in urban areas and there wasn't enough money to solve the problems there even if they weren't.

In 1970, Daniel P. Moynihan, future Democratic Senator from New York and at that time an advisor to President Richard Nixon, penned a famous memo to the President addressing the conditions of "Negroes at the end of the first year of your administration."

In the opening of his memo, Moynihan opined that "In quantitative terms, which are reliable, the American Negro is making extraordinary progress." After looking at other factors and issues, Moynihan advised President Nixon that "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.'"

The recession of the mid-'70s and the high interest rates and economic malaise associated therewith diminished the interest in solving site-specific problems. By the early 1980s, the concerns about urban areas and those of low socioeconomic status who resided there had begun to disappear altogether.

Since then, a variety of other considerations have preempted the once prominent position of the issue of central cities in crisis and moved it to the outer fringes of the public policy radar screen for the domestic arena. In the 21st century, these include the conditions and status of states, rural areas, suburbs and metropolitan areas.

The biggest swing away from an emphasis on cities was driven by the expansion of block grants to states under the Reagan Administration. This shrunk the role of the federal government in the administration of funds for domestic programs devolving it to the state level.

This financial devolution in combination with the economic impact of the Great Recession and the disproportionate influence in the Senate granted to small states by our Constitution have intensified the movement away from an urban or city focus.

In 2013, 62 senators from 31 states represented one quarter of the nation's population as did 6 senators from 3 states. As Adam Liptak pointed out in an excellent New York Times article: "The Constitution has always given residents of states with small populations a lift, but the size and importance of the gap has grown markedly in recent decades, in ways the framers probably never anticipated."

It's not just the smaller states that have ascended in primacy. Those in poverty in rural areas are commanding a larger share of government expenditures than they did in the past.

In the early '70s and until the mid 1980s, the spending per capita on government transfer payments to individuals in metro versus non-metro areas was approximately the same. By 2012, the per capita spending on individuals in non-metro areas was $8,460 versus $7,110 for those in metro areas -- a difference of almost 19 percent.

Another factor shaping the shift away from the "inner city" in major urban areas is the changing economic conditions of the suburbs. As Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube explain in their 2014 Brookings Institution Press book, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, the suburbs are no longer the bastions of the well off and upwardly mobile. For the past three decades, the poor population in the United States has grown the fastest in the suburbs.

Finally, there are America's metropolitan areas. Bruce Katz, Director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, observes, "Our 388 metropolitan areas are home to 84 percent of our population and 91 percent of our GDP. In 47 of our 50 states, the majority of state GDP is produced in metro areas."

Brooking's Metropolitan Policy Program has done an excellent job of shining a bright light on the importance of metropolitan areas to the American economy and advocating for decentralization and "customized solutions" to enable them to leverage their contributions.

There is no doubt that positive and pro-active initiatives need to be directed at these areas that are the nation's engines of growth. That action, however, should not ignore the fact that many of these areas include central cities in which poverty and economic inequality is extremely high and the opportunity for individual advancement is extremely low.

As many have recommended, including authors Kneebone and Berube, we need a balanced agenda to address the nation's problems of those in poverty. Today's agenda is not in balance when it comes to the needs of and those in need in our cities. What can be done to start bringing it into place?

Here are three "radical recommendations" as discussion points. We realize that they are not in sync with the nation's current power structure or governance process. We advance them not because of their feasibility but because of their desirability as a means to re-ignite a necessary debate about what to do to address the country's "urban crisis" which remains ongoing although ignored.

Recommendation 1: Eliminate the middle man for federal government grants.

Give those grants directly to the local government(s) affected. The logic for giving these dollars to the states in the first place was that the federal government was inefficient and not close enough to the locale to manage the distribution of these funds effectively. The thought was the state could do a better job. In the main, that logic has proven flawed.

Bruce Katz asserts that the state governments often limit the "general ability of cities and metros to act" and that "State legislatures have outsize influence over what cities can do..." Aaron Chatterji, associate professor at Duke University joins with Katz in his criticism of the states. Writing in the New York Times, he declares that because of increasing partisanship and political and policy realities, the states can no longer be looked at as "laboratories of democracy" solving problems within their own boundaries and bringing forward scalable solutions to migrate to other states and localities.

Recommendation 2: Consolidate governments in metropolitan areas and/or create alternative operational configurations for decision-making and/or delivery of services in metropolitan areas.

A metropolitan area is a statistical concept rather than an operational one. The Office of Management Budget (OMB) defines these areas for the purpose of collecting, tabulating and publishing federal data.

According to the United States Census Bureau, "the general concept of a metropolitan area is that of a large population nucleus (one urbanized area of 50,000 or more) with adjacent communities having a high degree of social and economic integration with that core." Based upon the 2010 decennial results, in the United States and Puerto Rico, OMB delineated 388 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in 2013.

In contrast to MSAs in the hundreds, there are only a small number of metropolitan governments in which city and county governments are combined -- 31 in 2011. From 1921 to 1996, there were 132 attempts at consolidation but only 22 were successful. The resistance to consolidation comes from a variety of sources including the desire for local autonomy and the existing distribution of power, control and influence within the current system.

So, it seems unlikely that consolidation or centralization of governments will secure broad-based support from the elected officials, bureaucrats or citizens in these overlapping jurisdictions. Gerald E. Frug, Professor at Harvard Law School, reviewed alternatives that had been attempted on a regional basis, and proposed creating a new regional institution with elected representatives from the cities to put them in charge of their collective agenda in a paper written in 2002 entitled "Beyond Regional Governments."

Professor Frug's proposal may not be a viable option. But, if metropolitan areas are to be made central to America's future and reducing poverty within those areas -- most especially in the inner cities -- options for meaningful collaboration must be found.

Recommendation 3: Require Metropolitan Area Gain-Sharing Plans.

It will not be sufficient just to place a new emphasis on metropolitan areas. As Bruce Katz states, "In a typical U.S. metro, the disparities between the poor and rich areas are dramatic, because well-off suburbs don't share the wealth they build"

The same can be said about the wealth that has flowed into the posh down town high rises and tonier parts of the big cities since the Great Recession has ended.

The rewards and benefits of metropolitan life have been and continue to be unevenly distributed.

That's true in most instances. But, Derek Thompson documents that Minneapolis-St. Paul is the exception to that rule.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul metro is richer by median household income than New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. The Twin Cities place in the top 10 in terms of highest college graduation rate and lowest poverty rates according to latest census data. Low income families can rent a home and commute to work more affordably than in all but one other major metro.

Thompson reports that the Twin Cities accomplished this due to a variety of factors including an environment of home-grown major businesses and corporate responsibility and a geographic location that did not put the Twin Cities into competition with other major metros for talent.

Most notably, however, in 1971 the Minnesota state legislature passed a bill requiring the region's local governments "to contribute almost half of the growth in commercial tax revenues to a regional pool from which the money would be distributed to tax poor areas. Today, business taxes are used to enrich some of the regions poorest communities."

In 1976, Minnesota required all local governments to plan for their fair share of affordable housing. This was done in the '70s and '80s but has slowed down significantly since. Nonetheless, according to Thompson, "The Twin Cities housing and tax-sharing policies have resulted in lots of good neighborhoods with good schools that are affordable for young graduates and remain nice to live in even as their paychecks rise."

To sum it up, Minneapolis has proven that it's not just the home of Mary Tyler Moore. It is a home for responsible and responsive citizens, businesses and governments who want to make living in a metropolitan area a better and fairer deal for all.

It sets the standard for a "holistic approach" to metropolitan planning. Its approach can't be lifted whole cloth and transported to another metropolitan area. But, it can serve as a model for those who are committed to transforming the metropolitan environment in an equitable manner.

In closing, when is an "urban crisis" not a crisis? When you don't call it one -- and in this 21st century we haven't and don't.

But, as the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and talks like a duck, it probably is one.

We won't solve the nation's "urban crisis" by labeling it such. Not doing so, however, means that we will not even begin to address in a serious manner those issues that over time could eventually destroy many of our American cities as we have known them.