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Despite lack of federal political will and funding, Motor City's collapse alters dynamics

Detroit renews urban policy debate

by Dan Balz

The Washington Post

A national urban policy would not have saved Detroit, but the city’s bankruptcy filing Thursday was a vivid reminder of how the problems of America’s cities have long ceased to be a focal point of the political debate in presidential campaigns or on Capitol Hill.

The closest the candidates came in 2012 to the topic was the contentious argument between President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, over the federal bailout of the auto industry.

Obama pummeled Romney over an article he had written for The New York Times in late 2008 opposing federal intervention. The headline, which Romney did not write, read: “Let Detroit go Bankrupt.”

In retrospect, it’s notable that Romney dealt solely with steps he thought were necessary — and unnecessary — to restore the vitality of the automobile industry. He said nothing about the various ailments of urban decline and decay that had hollowed out the once-vibrant city of Detroit — his hometown. Nor, for that matter, did Obama.

Now Detroit has gone bankrupt. Thursday’s filing, the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history, underscored that, while the federal government had the power and resources to help save General Motors, it seemed helpless in the face of Detroit’s monumental fiscal problems.

Vice President Joe Biden summed it up when asked Friday what the administration could do for Detroit. “We don’t know,” he said.

It’s not that Washington is ignoring cities in fiscal distress. There are many programs that have a particular impact on big cities.

Education policies and especially Title I assistance to disadvantaged students play an important role in urban school districts, where the problems remain substantial. Housing policy is another, as are safety net programs such as food stamps, welfare and Medicaid. Obama’s stimulus program also deposited considerable money into the cities.

But nor has federal policy, when the government has taken action, been an explicit benefit to cities, even in times when politicians thought and talked about urban policy. In fact, some federal policies did just the opposite.

Post-war transportation policy — the building of superhighways in and around cities — built up suburban jurisdictions at the expense of the urban core, often accelerating white flight and leaving behind cities composed more of the rich and poor than of the middle class.

Urban renewal, undertaken with good intentions, destroyed neighborhoods and packed poor people into high-rise ghettos in a number of big cities, leading to a concentration of poverty and crime.

Those towers were once symbols of a country’s aspirations to provide lower-income families with adequate housing. Eventually, they were torn down in recognition that the living conditions had become intolerable.

The vast Pruitt-Igoe complex in St. Louis was demolished in the 1970s; the infamous Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago in the 1990s. Those failed experiments brought some necessary humility to urban planning and politicians.

Urban policy would not necessarily have saved Detroit because other cities have rebounded from similar conditions without massive federal intervention or coordinated action.

Steel was once as central to Pittsburgh’s economy and identity as automobiles have been to Detroit. When the steel industry imploded decades ago, Pittsburgh eventually reinvented itself. Its unemployment as of this spring was less than 7 percent. Detroit’s was at 16 percent.

Pittsburgh is a far smaller city than Detroit — it is not even among the nation’s largest 50 urban areas in terms of population — but the Motor City’s decline still stands in contrast to what has happened elsewhere.

Other cities have dealt more effectively with their problems by tackling them with a local focus and a local consensus. Detroit was sometimes hampered by leadership inadequate to the problems, certainly during the tenure of former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick during the previous decade.

The city hoped for a rebirth with the mayoral election of former NBA star Dave Bing, who came in with great goodwill. But he could not fend off the bankruptcy.

There is another reason why the fate of cities is no longer a broad topic of discussion. Republicans feel little incentive to get behind initiatives aimed at the cities dominated by Democratic mayors and voters. Democratic politicians have stepped back from speaking about it, in part for fear of exacerbating racial differences or appearing more interested in the problems of urban minorities than middle-class suburbanites — swing voters live in the suburbs, not the cities.

Neither of the last two Democratic presidents — Obama and Bill Clinton — made urban problems a focal point of their political message.

Clinton’s focus was on the forgotten middle class. He offered an economic message that he hoped would resonate with middle-class voters regardless of race, rather than policies that explicitly focused on the poor, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had done in the 1960s.

Context was everything in that campaign. Clinton ran for president at a time when the Democratic Party was on its heels, in part because once-loyal white, working-class voters had moved to support Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration because of policies such as busing and affirmative action that Democrats had championed.

To show he was a New Democrat, Clinton emphasized welfare reform rather than Great Society-style initiatives.

Obama has governed at a time of diminished resources and a lack of political consensus. As a result, what the administration has done is smaller bore with less explicit focus on calling these initiatives part of an urban policy. There was money in Obama’s jobs initiative that would have helped cities but that legislation went nowhere.

Administration officials have talked for some time about trying to connect more efficiently various programs that touch on cities’ problems. They are looking at ways to help Detroit now that it is heading into bankruptcy.