Monday, January 15, 2007

A Complaint About Feds' Neglect of Cities:
How One OSU Law Prof Skirts the Issues

In the winter issue of the urban journal The Next American City, Ohio State law professor John Powell explores how federal neglect has left some of our cities in almost as bad a shape as New Orleans after Katrina's devastation. The opening spread of the piece, headlined "Gradual Disasters--A Hurricane Devastated New Orleans, Decades of Neglect Have Been Just as Devastating to Cities Like Detroit and Cleveland," contains a stark photo of an abandoned house in inner city Cleveland.

Sorry to say, I found this mostly a predictable rant about Washington's neglect of older core cities, which is now a very old story (it began during the first Reagan administration, a generation ago). Power, who also directs the university's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, serves up some ho-hum stuff. "While the news media swooped in to ponder how New Orleanians would make a living with thousands of businesses out of commision and no tourism dollars to speak of, not many national newspapers ran stories about a study released earlier this year that found that nearly a third of Cleveland's residents--32%--were living below the poverty line."

He ascribes all this to "spatial racism," a term coined five years ago by Chicago's Catholic cardinal. He writes: "we have used space, land use planning and infrastructure investment to do the work of earlier Jim Crow laws that the country formally repudiated." He concludes by observing that "while some resources have begun to flow into Gulf Coast reconstruction, the federal government is reducing its commitment and funding to other key programs, such as community development grants in struggling cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Reducing support for these programs will further heighten the isolation and vulnerability of our inner city communities of color."

There's only one problem with all of this: it simplistically suggests that if only we would invest more in our cities, they would somehow magically bloom, as if we haven't already tried (and failed at) that approach, since at least LBJ's War on Poverty. More recently (something he doesn't mention) the feds injected not inconsiderable amounts of aid to struggling inner cities through the Empowerment Zone program, pushed through during the Clinton Administration (alas, Cleveland didn't qualify for one, but HUD eventually awarded it a supplemental zone, something of a consolation prize). The good professor should get himself out of his ivory tower and poke around to find out what happened with all that: much of it was wasted by garden-variety political corruption, with
minority elites close to city hall skimming off funds through sham minority contracting rackets.

Interestingly enough, his own industry, the Academic-Poverty-Industrial complex, is not without its own complicity in all this. Our own Cleveland Foundation (which wrote the Empowerment Zone application, grandly imagining they were rethinking how services would be provided to the poor) and Mandel Center for Urban Poverty showered attention, gold-plated studies, endless outreach (as well as numerous press releases) on this, to little lasting avail. Today, these neighborhoods have many of the same problems and underlying pathologies they've always suffered under, and simply injecting more federal support isn't going to change that. So what is the answer? I only wish I knew. But I do know that moaning about lack of federal attention to our inner cities is worse than a waste of time. It's a way to talk around the problem while pretending we're addressing it.


At 11:56 AM, Anonymous oddjobs said...

extinction of native industry and sprawl (flight from plight) are main culprits; doesn't really matter when you're talking major cities. graft doesnt caused these probs. but seems like something fedral govtment should be intersted in---ailing major cities=ailing states=ailing country...

At 12:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Of course you're right that governments at all levels should and must be interested in the problem. I'm merely suggesting that the ways we've been dealing with it, throwing federal money and programs at it, hasn't worked in the past and so don't seem like the best candidates to work in the future. As for municipal graft, I wasn't saying it caused any of these problems, but that instead it's been a source of diversion of some of this funding, at least under the programs as they're currently constituted. I simply would have liked the writer in question to deal with these real-world situations.

At 2:55 PM, Anonymous Roldo Bartimole said...

I disagree wholeheartedly with the supposition that more financial help would not aid cities and their inhabitants.

The ending of general relief and welfare HAVE hurt this area in particular. Billions of dollars have been lost to low income people. I think what you may find is that many poor people found (as they do off welfare) ways of making money in the underground economy. However, the welfare check often supplimented those underground earnings and regular low-paying jobs, to make life more livable.

As to the graft one of the problems has been the TYPE of federal aid to cities. Urban Action Grants (UDAGS), sukpposedly based on the seriousness of poverty in the city, went to big developers.

Block grant money was often wasted. I remember when Mike White was a councilman and head of the community development committee, tens of millions of dollars were spent on sidewalks. Not the greatest need for the city. When he became Mayor, however, much of that money went - where it should have been going - to housing. One of his achievements.

Cities as Cleveland need more federal housing money. There are programs that could eliminate or certainly heavily reduce homelessness, if the money were available.

In our time, unfortunately, public funds have gone for the wrong needs - sports stadiums, upscale retail and upscale housing, in particular.

But calling for less funding to our old cities plays into the hands of those who want destroy government in favor of a privatized community where only a profit-making mechanism is acceptable.

We should have more public money in housing, in education at all levels, in health and recreation, parks and all kinds of arts and with taxes that reflect ability to pay.

As someone who went to college on the GI bill, I support full payment of college for anyone who can maintain the work required. And for those not wanting college, an opportunity to a job that pays a living wage. As a recipient of Social Security, a New Deal welfare program, I live lots better than my grandparents did.

Back to the New Deal and the War of Poverty. They did do good despite the problems.

At 3:43 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

You make a persuasive case for much of this, Roldo, as I was guessing you might when I posted this (knowing you'd probably take issue). I think your most persuasive point is about the form of the aid and UDAGs. My reference to graft was really to the more generalized problem about minority set-asides, which have been gamed and rigged to the point where they now tend to go almost completely to the minority have's rather than the have-nots, with little of what a Reaganite might call trickle-down effect.

Where we differ most fundamentally, I suppose, is on the welfare system. There, I agree with those who said for years that it created and perpetuated a systemic underclass and discouraged work. We needed something new, if not precisely what we got in its place in the '90s.

I don't think I'm alone in thinking that homelessness is generally a much deeper problem than someone simply lacking shelter. And in Cleveland, we have historically dealt far better with providing bricks and mortar help to the poor than other kinds of aid, such as education. Everyone from the Ford Foundation on down has noted this.

As for a renewed domestic War on Poverty (which I don't think is in the cards, given our larger dynamics just now, including the fact that Bush has driven federal deficits through the roof), isn't it amazing how we can always find a trillion or so dollars to fight some foreign war of our choosing, but never a few tens of billions to address the poverty of our own citizens. That's more than distressing. It's sickening.

At 4:10 PM, Anonymous oddjobs said...

so in the end, based on your last point (trilions for war) you agree with rodlo. more money would help... maybe we don't call it welfare and you feel better about it...

At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Lou said...

After visiting New Orleans in early December, equating the devastation of New Orleans, and the 9th ward in particular, with that of Cleveland, misses the point that areas of New Orleans were tragically suffering even before the hurricane hit. The added horrific events of the hurricane, when added to the previous condition of the city, in my opinion, becomes a much greater loss. Tangenting as I sometimes do, unregulated national mortgage brokers, poor transportation policy, cannibalization of businesses by municipalities/counties/states and myopic township trustees playing the role of statemen(and women) are just a few short-listers that have played a fair role in "devastating" the economy, education, and quality of life in large cities in Ohio and across the midwest.

Of course that is my opinion, I could be wrong - Dennis Miller

At 10:56 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Oddjobs, I'm not at all averse to spending money on the disadvantaged. I merely want it to be invested in something that will help make their lives better in the long run (while also eventually mitigating the tax burden on their fellow citizens). At the risk of using a trite phrase, I'd rather that we teach people to fish than simply keep handing out fish, as the old welfare system did. If we instead take that money and invest in better schools and more and better teachers, in subsidized day care for single parent households, and in meaningful job training for anyone who needs it, we'll get somewhere, and it'll all seem like investments rather than mere handouts.

I should have also said in reply to Roldo that the implication of his grouping the GI Bill, Social Security and welfare together is wholly misleading. He earned that help with college tuition by fighting for his country and his Social Security retirement pay by having a percentage of his earnings withheld over many years (the statistics suggest that he made a reasonable rate of return on those savings, though it will be far less attractive for my age group). Welfare is of course a different thing altogether.

At 11:30 AM, Anonymous roldo bartimole said...

John: I did write a longer response to this issue yesterday but somehow it disappeared and never got on your comments. I don't know why but these things seem to happen.

Now, in response to the latest comment addressed my way I'd say that Social Security, now even augmented with Medicare and also a prescription plan, is very much a welfare program.

Also, even those who collected "welfare" in the old concept, i.e., the dole, have usually at some point worked and paid taxes.

The way most taxes are assessed - highly regressive - lower income people usually end up paying (sales taxes, for example) at a much higher rate related to income than higher income people do.

Our focus should be on the inequality that's built into our system and at this point has us in a Gilded Age that puts the last one to shame.

At 11:55 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Sorry for the technical problems. I'd call the Google billionaires to ask them to fix it (Google owns Blogger), but I'd probably never get through to them. They're probably still dickering over the details of customizing their party plane, about which I wrote not long ago.

Yes, of course we're largely quibbling over the smaller picture when we agree on the big picture: that our entire tax and political systems are rigged in favor of the wealthy (which is why so many average people are starting to agree with one bumper sticker I saw recently--"we don't hold elections, we hold auctions"). To take just one of many examples, while more of a wealthy person's income is now assessed the Social Security tax than in the past (the first $90-something-thousand) after that they're off scot-free, which is highly regressive, especially at a time when we seem to be slapping "sin" taxes on all the vices (like smoking) pursued by lower-income folks.

Where we differ most, I suppose, is in our relative optimism that those structural inequities will ever be solved in a meaningful way, except around the edges. Sorry to say, I'm mostly a pessimist on that front. The haves seem to have been doing pretty much the same thing to the have-nots throughout most of history.

I'm intrigued, however, by why you think Social Security is really a welfare program (I'm not talking so much about the benefits for survivors and the disabled, a much smaller subset of the system). I think it's more like a forced retirement policy for the whole society (though not Congress or its employees, who've voted themselves a much cushier system). And one which has worked out pretty well, all considered.

At 10:15 AM, Anonymous roldo bartimole said...

Ah, to continue this one, too.

Social Security is a welfare program in my mind for one because it was part of the New Deal.

But for many who have low wage jobs and don't pay much into Social Security, if they live long enough get far more back. I am in that category.

It ensures that the elderly don't slip into extreme poverty, as they did in this rich nation.

It, more than anything else, relived America of once its most economically oppressed minority.

That's why everyone should oppose the Bush and Republican desisre to privatize Social Security. That really is a first step to destroying Social Security, the real aim of conservative Republicans.

At 10:43 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I hear you. But I think you also know that that progressivity feature (low-income people getting more back than they paid in) is far less true today than for those who paid into the system during its first 40 years or so (before Congress began revisiting the formulas in the '80s to cover giant expected shortfalls). And of course you also need to factor in the simple idea of investment returns, comparing what your money would have made over the same period in a mutual fund or some other investment. That's not to say that S.S. needs to outpace the returns of other alternatives (its broad social benefits are obviously worth something to the larger society), but neither should it lag too far behind, or it risks losing the support of average citizens who might resent being forced to invest for their retirements through low-yielding instruments.

As for privatizing Soc. Sec., I think you realize that that once-a-generation constellation of forces aligning to get something that radical accomplished has now passed. It got almost no traction with the public despite a then-popular president putting the full weight of his presidency behind it as priority #1 for about two solid years (at least), and Wall Street pushing it in a thousand ways. I don't think we'll have to deal with that threat again for quite some time. This time, at least, Main Street's native good sense thoroughly trumped Wall Street's relentless greed (the quality media, or what's left of it, did its share in the educational effort too). What a nice change.


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