Obama’s Urban Policy Team: What We Should Expect

Michael Davis, a Dallas city planner, has been named to Barack Obama’s Urban Policy Committee.

Barack Obama, if elected, plans to create a White House Office on Urban Policy “to ensure that all federal dollars targeted to urban areas are effectively spent on the highest-impact programs. The Director of Urban Policy will report directly to the president and coordinate all federal urban programs.”

Another member of the Urban Policy Committee is Udai Tambar, a former policy director to Newark Mayor Cory Booker. Tambar served as the assistant director of the Policy Research Institute for the Region at Princeton University.
Obama’s urban policy proposals include increased federal spending on urban programs, expanding work opportunities, more earned income tax credits, and an emphasis on public-private partnerships. There is much in Obama’s urban policy plan that is right on track.

Michael Davis has been a member of the Dallas City Plan Commission. We get an insight into Davis from his blog – Dallas Progress.

It is clear that cities and metropolitan areas will play a central role in economic and social policy under an Obama administration. Obama is believed to epitomize the Third Way. Will he have the wisdom to reject so many policies of the (so-called) left that have clearly not worked?

Policy thinkers and activists on the left have been waiting on the sidelines for too long under the Bush administration, which has offered no support at all for these policies. It is natural for those on the left to now think “It is our turn.” But it will take a steely prudence to apply a reality check to all liberal policies under consideration.

For example, the Moving to Opportunity (MTO) Demonstration has had disappointing findings. Policy researchers throughout America have been struggling to put a good face on the impacts of MTO, and the best they have been able to come up with so far is that MTO reduced obesity. A housing voucher mobility program has been reduced to an anti-obesity program! MTO has simply not had positive effects on self-sufficiency, higher wages and employment, and better educational outcomes that it was intended to have.

An article in the current issue of The Atlantic by Hanna Rosin, titled American Murder Mystery highlights evidence from Memphis (Tennessee) and Louisville (Kentucky) showing a geographical matching between the location of Section 8 voucher housing units and concentration of violent crime. There is evidence in other parts of the country also that when people move from a city or a public-housing project, crime follows them to their new neighborhoods whether it is in inner-ring suburbs or other areas. Rosin quotes Ed Goetz (of the University of Minnesota) as wondering about the housing voucher-based mobility programs:

Was this a bad theory of poverty? We were intending to help people climb out of poverty, but that hasn’t happened at all. Have we underestimated the role of support networks and overestimated the role of place?

Again, that it is the lack of support networks that is to blame is little more than speculation. Is this going to be another bad theory of poverty?

It is my hope that Obama will rely on his own experience in working with disadvantaged communities, and his common sense, that he seems to have an abundance of, in choosing the right sets of policies to alleviate poverty and to set currently disadvantaged families on a path of upward economic and social mobility.

Simple geographic mobility, or even mobility with social support networks, is not going to produce results. In a recent chapter in the book Segregation: The Rising Costs for America , Rachel Kleit (professor at the University of Washington) highlights the fact that social networks in disadvantaged segregated neighborhoods are not the kind that will lead to upward economic mobility, even though they provide rich social support.

An aggressive jobs strategy is required. Work of the kind that pays a living wage is required. A special effort is needed to ensure that ex-offenders find stable employment. In disadvantaged segregated neighborhoods, persons released from prison make up a significant proportion of the population. Indeed, the Obama team seems to understand that this is a priority and have listed it on their Urban Policy Plan. Here is an excerpt from it:

Reduce Crime Recidivism by Providing Ex-Offender Supports: America is facing an incarceration and post-incarceration crisis in urban communities. Today, nearly 2 million children have a parent in a correctional facility. In the U.S. Senate, Obama has worked to provide job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling, and employment opportunities to ex-offenders. In addition to signing these important programs into law, Obama will create a prison-to-work incentive program, modeled on the successful Welfare-to-Work Partnership, to create ties with employers and third-party agencies that provide training and support services to ex-offenders, and to improve ex-offender employment and job retention rates. Obama will also work to reform correctional systems to break down barriers for ex-offenders to find employment..

The plan also includes a proposal to end racial profiling.

With respect to educational performance, tutoring is needed to help each student overcome his or her individual learning hurdles. Children from middle-class families significantly improve their educational performance (and ability to gain admission in elite colleges) through tutorial classes. Children in disadvantaged neighborhoods need to be provided with tutor vouchers that they can use to obtain high-quality tutorial assistance.

I am encouraged that Obama’s urban plan is silent on housing vouchers, which I have written elsewhere is a failed, inequitable, and ill-conceived program.

Under Obama’s leadership, on a Third Way, we should see U.S. cities and metropolitan areas transformed into vibrant entities leading value-creation in the world economy. This will be achieved through a coming together of technology, optimal harnessing of all available resources (this involves inclusive development, with no population segment left behind), and restoring a sense of fundamental fairness where rewards are based on real contributions (rather than, say, closeness to power and influence). And the new economic prosperity will usher a renaissance of art and culture throughout the land.

What makes me so hopeful? Obama has chosen Michael Davis for his Urban Policy Committee. On his blog profile Davis lists his interests as love, life, music, politics, real estate, blogs (ya think), computers, electronics, architecture. With such priorities there is much to feel cheerful about.

Nandinee Kutty
Dr. Nandinee K. Kutty is an economist and a policy consultant. She is an editor and contributor for the book Segregation: The Rising Costs for America (Routledge 2008). She is the author of numerous research papers published in peer-reviewed journals of economics and public policy. Dr. Kutty was formerly a professor at Cornell University. Her published research papers and op-eds are currently on the reading lists for courses taught at various universities in the U.S. Her e-mail address is nndkutty@aol.com.

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