Urban Neglect: George W. Bush and the Cities

On April 29, 2002, the tenth anniversary of the now infamous Los Angeles riots, George W. Bush spoke at a church-sponsored community development center in South Los Angeles. Given the occasion, reporters might have expected George W. to announce a new initiative that would address the nation’s serious urban problems. But Bush came to Los Angeles – in a brief interlude between fundraisers – bearing only rhetoric. He talked about hope and faith but offered no specific policy proposals.

“You know, we live in a great country,” he said. “I’m proud of America. I’m proud of our country. I’m proud of what we stand for. Oh, I know there’s pockets of despair. That just means we’ve got to work harder. It means you can’t quit. It means we’ve got to rout it out with love and compassion and decency. But this is the greatest country on the face of the earth. And it is such an honor to be the president of such a great land.”

Trying to combine the roles of preacher and historian, Bush offered this lesson: “Out of the violence and ugliness came new hope,” he said, in the middle of a neighborhood where only 23 percent of the commercial buildings destroyed by the riots were back in business, where there were 43,800 fewer jobs than in 1992 and where more than one-third of the residents lived in poverty. Bush touted his most visible urban program – encouraging urban churches to sponsor social programs such as homeless shelters, food kitchens and drug counseling. His proposal (which stalled in Congress because of disagreements over federal funding for religious activities) added no funds for these worthy, though Band-Aid, efforts but simply called for redirecting existing moneys. Indeed, thanks to his $1.3 trillion in tax cuts, Bush made it impossible for the federal government to provide any significant aid to the nation’s cities or to the poor.

It isn’t difficult to understand why President Bush has paid so little attention to urban America. Vice President Al Gore won slightly more popular votes than Bush but had fewer electoral college votes after the U.S. Supreme Court gave the Florida contest to Bush. Gore beat Bush convincingly among voters in cities, by a 61 percent to 35 percent margin; virtually tied Bush among suburban voters by a 47 percent to 49 percent margin and lost by a large 37 percent to 59 percent margin among rural voters. Urban voters, however, accounted for only 29 percent of all voters. Black voters favored Gore by a 90 percent to 9 percent margin, while Hispanic voters chose Gore by a 62 percent to 35 percent margin. Not surprisingly, Bush has seen no reason to shape his policy agenda to appeal to urban voters.

Are Cities Making a Comeback?
As we entered the twenty-first century, some urban experts and journalists – most prominently, Paul Grogan and Tony Proscio in their book Comeback Cities – were talking about an urban renaissance in America. Data from the 2000 census showed some promising signs. During the 1990s, some major cities, including New York and Chicago, reversed their long decline in population. The nation’s urban crime rate was lower than it had been a decade earlier. So was the urban unemployment rate. Homeownership rates for Latinos and blacks had increased, although the gap with whites remained significant. Also, by 2000 the nation’s overall poverty rate (11.3 percent) – and that of central cities (16.1 percent) – was lower than it had been in 25 years. Even air quality improved in many urban areas.

But, despite pockets of gentrification in quite a few cities, the basic trends of widening income inequality persist. Vast contrasts of wealth and poverty are sometimes located only a few zip codes from each other. The economic recovery of the 1990s has simply passed by some of the nation’s most troubled urban neighborhoods – as well as passing by a growing number of low-income suburban areas. The message of “comeback cities” is certainly preferable to the widespread stereotype of America’s cities as cauldrons of social pathology. But the positive trends were neither inevitable nor durable. As the nation’s economy drifted downward after 2000, the indicators of an urban revival – such as reductions in poverty, crime and the proportion of families without health insurance – reversed their direction.

During the 1990s, Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter raised the argument that inner cities have a competitive advantage and will prosper if governments simply step out of the way and promote a favorable business climate. But the extent to which cities improved in the 1990s was due largely to an unprecedented national economic expansion, reinforced by national policies that reduced unemployment, spurred productivity, lifted the working poor out of poverty and targeted private investment to low-income urban areas. Cities improve when the federal government promotes full employment and supports targeted programs such as revenue sharing, job training, subsidized housing and health insurance and urban mass transit. For example, the Clinton administration’s expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – which provides the working poor with additional income (currently up to $3,888 a year for the poorest) – was particularly helpful in urban cities. In 2001, the EITC provided more than $30 billion to 18.4 million poor families in the United States, making it the nation’s largest antipoverty program. Moreover, during the Clinton years, HUD promoted the efforts of community development corporations (CDCs) to revitalize poor urban neighborhoods. In Los Angeles (and other cities), CDCs have built most of the affordable housing that has been added to the city’s inventory in the past decade. What CDCs have accomplished is remarkable, but the shortage of federal funds for housing ensures that they can have only a marginal impact.

Urban Conditions During the Bush Years
As president, George W. Bush has had three policy priorities: to cut taxes, especially for the most affluent; to reduce government regulations on business; and to increase American military spending. With a Republican majority in Congress, Bush has been able to accomplish all three goals. The attacks on September 11, 2001 helped reverse Bush’s declining favorability ratings and made it much easier for him to persuade Democrats to vote to boost defense spending, invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and appropriate funds for a domestic “war on terrorism.” Bush inherited a federal budget surplus from Clinton, but the combination of huge tax cuts and increasing military spending has led to record budget deficits, with hardly any discretionary funds left for social or antipoverty programs. The initial public support for Bush’s focus on war and terrorism also has limited the Democrats’ willingness to challenge his handling of the troubled economy.

After the end of the previous recession, in March 1991, the nation embarked on nine straight years of job growth. In contrast, the “Bush recession” ended in November 2001, but over the next two years the nation experienced what some economists are calling a “jobless recovery,” with American firms sending a growing number of both blue- and white-collar jobs overseas. During Bush’s first three years in office, the unemployment rate increased from 4 percent to 6 percent, adding more than 3 million people to the jobless ranks. The number of people out of work for more than six months doubled. Between 2000 and 2003, median household income fell from $43,848 to $43,318, the nation’s poverty rate rose from 11.3 percent to 12.5 percent and an additional 4.8 million Americans (an increase from 31.1 million to 35.9 million) fell into poverty.

Since Bush took office, poverty also has increased in the suburbs. In 2000, 11.3 million poor Americans (35.8 percent of the total poverty population) lived in suburbs compared with 12.9 million (41.6 percent) in cities. By 2003, 13.8 million poor Americans (38.5 percent of the nation’s poor) lived in the suburbs, almost as many as the 14.5 million (40.6 percent of the total) who live in central cities. Even most of the suburban poor live in troubled communities beset with problems once associated with big cities: crime, hunger, homelessness, inadequate schools and public services, and chronic fiscal crises. In 2000, Bush campaigned as a “compassionate conservative,” but as soon as he took office, he abandoned that image. His most symbolic “urban” initiative was a plan to redirect federal funds for social programs like homeless shelters, food banks and drug rehabilitation programs to agencies sponsored by “faith-based” organizations. Many social policy experts questioned whether religious organizations were effective at addressing the social problems. Although Bush created a faith-based office in the White House, Congress refused to enact legislation endorsing the plan. Nonetheless, Bush has begun to implement his plan though regulatory changes in HUD and other federal agencies, sidestepping Congress.

Bush forged a bipartisan consensus in Congress to enact an education bill, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, to require local schools to increase student testing and to issue annual “report cards” on their progress toward improving student performance. The purported goal was to force school systems – particularly schools in inner-city and minority neighborhoods – to raise standards, including the hiring of more qualified teachers, in order to improve student achievement. The bill required the federal and state governments to punish schools and school systems that failed to meet certain standards. The bill was passed with much fanfare, but Bush failed to request sufficient funds to translate its goals into real accomplishments. Education experts estimated that the nation’s schools would need at least $84 billion to comply with the new federal standards, but Bush asked Congress only for an additional $1 billion. Without adequate funds, local systems could not hire more teachers, reduce class sizes or provide existing teachers with additional training. Schools in inner cities, which are most likely to have low-achieving students but lack the resources to add teachers or improve facilities, have been most hurt by the No Child Left Behind Act.

Housing for the poor was barely on Bush’s radar screen. In his first three years as president, Bush kept the HUD budget at roughly the same level, but in 2004 he proposed major cuts to the Section 8 housing voucher program, eliminating 250,000 vouchers in 2005 and 600,000 vouchers by 2009 – a 30 percent cut. In a recent editorial, the New York Times decried the Republicans’ “odious cuts,” criticizing their plan for “squeezing money from the HUD budget to help pay for all those tax cuts for the rich.” When Mel Martinez was HUD secretary, he told a Washington Post columnist that “[t]he solution to meeting the nation’s affordable housing needs will not come out of Washington.” And more recently, the new HUD Secretary, Alphonso Jackson, in justifying these cuts, claimed, “being poor is a state of mind, not a condition.” Jackson’s statement unwittingly reveals the Bush Administration’s underlying view that poverty is due primarily to character flaws among the poor.

During Bush’s presidency, rents and housing prices have increased faster than incomes. In 2000, the national two-bedroom “housing wage” – the hourly wage that someone who is working 40 hours a week has to earn to afford a typical apartment in a particular area – was $12.47; by 2003, the national housing wage was $15.21 – and it rose much higher in many cities. The nation’s homeownership rate increased to 68.3 percent in 2003, but many working-class homeowners found that the American Dream was a bit slippery. The share of FHA loans in foreclosure at the end of 2003 reached a record 2.93 percent. Among subprime loans, 5.63 percent were in foreclosure.

Since 2000, the nation’s economic distress, including the spiraling federal deficit, has created fiscal havoc among states and cities. Many states and cities are facing their worst fiscal condition in decades. Governors and mayors, including Republicans, have complained that Washington is leaving them in the lurch. The skyrocketing cost of health care has strained states’ ability to pay for their share of Medicaid. Governors have been forced to cut funding for health care, schools, transportation and other basic services. Nor can they cope with the cost of implementing the new federal welfare-to-work mandates, because rising unemployment has made it nearly impossible to find jobs for former welfare recipients. Mayors and other city officials, reeling from the loss of federal and state aid, have had no choice but to cut essential services, including public safety, libraries, road repair and public schools.

The cities’ fiscal trauma has been compounded by the Bush administration’s most expensive federal mandate – complying with its homeland security and antiterrorism initiatives. The Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” and “homeland security” programs have had a disproportionate impact on American cities. The federal government has required cities to dramatically increase security measures at airports, ports and sports events and to improve emergency preparations around water systems, the 911 telephone system, public health and public safety, but it has failed to provide municipalities with adequate funds to buy equipment, or to add and train staff. Cities spend $70 million a week to comply with each “orange alert” security threat warning from the federal Department of Homeland Security. The Bush administration, along with the nation’s media, devote more resources and attention to rebuilding Iraq than to rebuilding America’s cities. In both situations, however, Bush has failed – in Iraq, due to incompetence; in the United States, due to lack of concern.

A Reform Agenda for Cities
On many fronts, the Bush administration has been the most conservative regime of the past century. During the Bush years, progressive urban activists and policy practitioners have had little success in promoting necessary reforms at the federal level. With Congress in Republican hands, there has been little progressives can do but try to stop bad things from happening. Much of progressives’ political energy has been focused on opposing U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq; fighting against the Patriot Act and other restrictions on civil liberties; and redirecting the public’s attention to the Bush administration’s dismantling of federal laws protecting consumers, workers and the environment. Progressives also have had to redirect the public’s attention to the Bush administration’s slashing of programs for the poor, and its crony capitalism, which has led to tax breaks for the richest Americans as well as corporate scandals that destroyed jobs, pension protections and health care benefits. Small victories – such as stopping Bush’s efforts to restrict overtime pay for millions of workers – have had to suffice.

Moreover, the push to “devolve” federal responsibilities to states and localities has forced progressives to focus attention on policies and policymakers at these levels. There is, in fact, growing momentum at the local level for progressive urban policies. The most dramatic example of this is the growing number of cities (now more than 100) that have adopted living-wage laws – a development that is a tribute to the alliances among unions, community groups and faith-based groups that have emerged in the past decade. The “community reinvestment” movement has made significant headway in forging grassroots coalitions to stop banks from redlining urban neighborhoods and engaging in predatory lending; the movement has also forged partnerships with lenders to expand housing development. In some cities, housing activists have joined forces with unions and other groups to push for inclusionary zoning laws and municipal housing trust funds, such as the $100 million annual fund in Los Angeles. There are a growing number of labor, community and environmental faith-based coalitions working on such metropolitan issues as suburban sprawl and mass transportation.

For urban activists, battles at the local level – to improve housing conditions, unionize low-wage workers in the service and light manufacturing sectors, resist bank redlining and predatory lending, improve public schools, fight against environmental hazards, expand public transit and others – must continue. But although these efforts can help improve people’s lives, they are, for the most part, holding actions. One stroke of the pen in Washington can wipe out years of organizing success at the local level. We cannot solve our nation’s urban problems without reforms at the federal government level. To level the playing field for union organizing campaigns, we need to reform the nation’s unfair labor laws. To improve conditions for the growing army of the working poor, we need to raise the federal minimum wage and expand participation in the Earned Income Tax Credit program. To provide adequate resources to house poor and working-class families, we need a National Housing Trust Fund or other legislation to expand federal subsidies. To address the nation’s health care crisis, we need national health insurance. To improve our public schools, especially those that serve the nation’s poorest children, we need to increase federal funding to provide smaller classrooms, adequate teacher training and adequate facilities and materials. To redirect private investment in cities and older suburbs, we need to provide sufficient funds to clean up toxic urban brownfields. To address the problems of growing traffic congestion, we need federal funds to improve public transit of all kinds as well as federal laws to limit tax breaks and other incentives that promote suburban sprawl and leapfrog development on the fringes of metropolitan areas.

To have a progressive agenda for America’s cities and metro areas move forward, defeating George Bush is necessary, though by no means sufficient. No one expects a Kerry administration to be the salvation for America’s cities, but even a moderate Democrat in the White House will provide openings for progressive reform that were impossible during this administration. Equally important, if voters restore a Democratic majority in either the House or the Senate, many of the key committee chairs will be allies in the struggle for progressive reform.

The history of the past century shows that progress is made when people join together to struggle for change, make stepping-stone reforms and persist so that each victory builds on the next. This work is slow and gradual, because it involves organizing people to learn the patient skills of leadership and organization building. It requires forging coalitions that can win elections and then promote politics that keep the coalition alive, even during times of fiscal problems and tough choices.

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