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"Reuniting City and Suburb: The Key to Inner City Progress"

May/June 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

by David Rusk

Forty percent of America's central cities are programmed to fail. This is my conclusion from studying forty years of population, economic, racial, and fiscal trends for all 522 central cities in all of America's 320 metropolitan areas.

Bridgeport, Newark, Hartford, Cleveland and Detroit are on life support systems. Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis and Philadelphia are sinking.

Although they seem fairly healthy, Boston, Minneapolis and Atlanta are already infected.

These cities will fail despite successful efforts to reinvent urban government. They will fail despite successful programs to stimulate inner-city entrepreneurship. They will fail despite successful enterprise zones, community development banks, and non-profit housing projects. They will fail despite new downtown office towers, festival marketplaces, and wonderful new-old ball parks.

They will fail because they are programmed to be the poorhouses for their metropolitan areas. Outside their downtown business districts these cities are steadily and inexorably being converted into the equivalent of giant public housing projects. Very simply, they are forced to house too many poor Blacks and Hispanics.

The burden of poverty is crushing these cities. More important, the burden of poverty is crushing their residents. Most poor city dwellers cannot be rescued-most cannot rescue themselves within these cities' neighborhoods.

How heavy is this burden? I've constructed a "fair share poverty index." For example, if a city has half of the metro area's population and half of the metro area's poor, it has its fair share: its fair share poverty index is 100. Higher than 100 and a city has more than its fair share of poor residents. At an index of 200, for example, a city has twice its fair share of poor people.

Let's look at a sample list of cities (see box-column A). Their average fair share poverty index is 263. That means they have over two and a half times their fair share of their metro area's poor.

Examining another set of sample cities (see box--column B), their fair share poverty index is 127: just 27% more poor people than their fair share, not 163% more like the first group. And yet for that first group the percentage of poor people metro-wide-lW-was lower than for the second group-12%.

How did this happen-and how was it made to happen?

Since World War II our national government has had a national urban policy. It has been a national suburban policy. Low-cost mortgages for single family homes-$400 billion for 8 million homes today. Home mortgage interest deductions-a $37 billion federal income tax break last year. Since 1950 over $270 billion for building suburban-serving highways and beltways-five times the amount for city-serving mass transit.

Wall Street, Detroit, Hollywood and Madison Avenue joined in to sell the American people that the American Dream could only be found in a special place-the suburbs.

This national suburban policy has been a spectacular success. Since 1950 al population growth has been low-density suburban style growth. In 1950 almost 70% of urban-area people lived in cities. In 1990 over 60% of urban-area people lived in suburbs.

What happened to that fast group of cities - Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis, etc. - was that they didn't grow outward For many reasons - bad annexation laws, bad neighbors, bad city policy above all, racial. discrimination-the3 were trapped within their city limits. Ii my terminology, they were "inelastic."

The second group-Kansas City Dallas, Columbus, etc.-did expand From 1950 to 1990, this group of fifteen "elastic" cities expanded their city limit: over 700%. They "captured" a lot of then suburban-style growth within their o)5 expanding city limits. In fact, these fifteen cities captured 42% of all population growth for themselves. Several cities, it effect, are their own suburbs-"cities: without suburbs."

It wasn't just that these "elastic" cities: were located in growth areas. Yes, over these same four decades their metro areas added over 13 million new people But the fast group, of "inelastic" cities added over 10 million new people in then metro areas. The problem was that the Chicago's, Detroit's and St. Louis's didn't "capture" any growth. All growth occurred in the suburbs outside them. No only didn't they capture new people, their "contributed" many city residents to the suburbs. These fifteen cities contribute( almost 30% of their population to their own suburbs.
First, there was "White flight," which increased racial segregation in metro areas. More recently, there is "Black flight"-the Black middle class moving to the suburbs. This has accelerated economic segregation-yawning income gaps between city and suburb.

How much racial and economic segregation? Both sets of metro areas have about the same percentage of Black population-17% for the inelastic areas, 16% for the elastic areas. But on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, metro-wide, these inelastic areas are 25% more racially segregated than elastic areas.

In average per capita income these inelastic metro areas appear to have higher income levels ($17,139) than the elastic metro areas ($14,835)-not taking into account cost-of-living differences. But the inelastic central cities average only 59% of their suburbs' income levels, while the elastic central cities essentially have income levels equal to their suburbs (96%).

And when rough adjustments are made for differences in cost of living, the real incomes of these inelastic and elastic metro areas are the same, while real incomes for elastic city dwellers are about 50% higher than real incomes, for inelastic city dwellers.

No wonder that these elastic cities average AA 1 municipal bond ratings while this group of inelastic cities averages a little over BAA1-four steps below-not counting Gary, Camden, and East St. Louis, which, likely, cannot even sell their bonds.

These vast disparities between inelastic and elastic cities don't exist just for these two sets of fifteen areas I've illustrated. With varying degrees of fit, they hold true for over 500 cities in over 300 metro areas.

Why? What are the factors? Based on regression analysis, we can answer the following questions: Does size of metro area count? No. Does percentage of minority population metro-wide count? No. Does region of the country count? Some. Does the loss of manufacturing jobs in some regions and increase in others count? It's important. Does age of the central city count? Yes. Old cities have old, decaying neighborhoods which historically become warehouses for the poor. Younger cities have less clearly defined ghettos and barrios and have grown up in less racially intolerant times.

But nothing counts as much as how elastic or inelastic the central city is and how fragmented or unified local government is in general throughout the metro area. Why? Well, in our national mythology smaller government may be seen as better government, but the national reality is that the more a metro area is fragmented into many small cities, towns, and school districts, the more segregated it is between Black and White, between middle class and poor. Small governments protect and promote uniformity. They act to exclude. Broadbased governments can promote diversity. They can act to include.

I suggest four Laws of Urban Dynamics (see box). Of these, the fourth law-"ghettos only become bigger ghettos"-has the most wrenching implications for those committed to overcoming the barriers of race and poverty.
Forty cities have passed what I've identified as the Point of No Returnloss of population of 20% or more, a minority population of 30% or more, a city-to-suburb income ratio of 70% or less. Such cities continue to decline decade by decade. Not one has ever closed the income gap with its suburbs. The gap steadily continues to widen.

What's to be done? I believe that there are only two strategies that offer real hope. Either:

Expand inelastic cities to include their suburbs through annexation and citycounty consolidation to create more metropolitan governments, or

Make suburbs accept their fair share of responsibility for poor Blacks and Hispanics through metro-wide affordable housing requirements, metro-wide public housing programs, and metro-wide revenue sharing.

Such strategies will not only save inn cities, they will help inner city people. The most effective anti-poverty program is to help poor people just get out of ghettos and barrios. High levels of crime unemployment, dependency, broke families and illegitimacy are substantial the result of concentrated poverty. Bad neighborhoods defeat good program Ghettos and barrios crush too mar good people.

What I've just suggested is the toughest political task in America. Inelastic cities didn't get where they are by accident. These patterns of racial and economic segregation are built on the dark fears about race and class that crouch at the heart of the American psyche.

Reorganizing urban governance isn’t a task primarily for the federal government. It doesn't have the Constitution tools, and the new administration should concentrate on the economy, the deficit and health care reform. I only ask the federal government: stop doing harm. Stop recycling high-rise public house projects. Stop systematically favoring suburban growth through housing and tax policies.

Citizens of good will-Black, White and Hispanic-across the country must spearhead such reforms. And their efforts must focus where the responsibility for how local governments are organized lies within our federal system-on governors and state legislators.

Such a movement to recreate o metropolitan areas as communities shared responsibility needs all the help can get.

It needs reinventing urban government to show that larger governments can be better, more responsive governments.

It needs inner-city economic development to broaden economic opportunity.

It needs successful inner-city community-based programs. Revitalized cities with only middle-class residents are no more desirable than decaying cities of only poor Blacks and Hispanics.

But without recognizing the dynamics of metropolitan areas-without reprogramming inelastic cities-the record of recent decades in hundreds of communities is compelling. These other strategies cannot do the job. The social and economic forces at work are too powerful. To many, achieving such "cities without suburbs" or forging a shared responsibility between city and suburb which will break down barriers of both race and class may appear impossible.

However, as Abraham Lincoln testified in his fast inaugural address, miracles can be wrought in the American soul and spirit "when again touched, as surely they will be, by the angels of our better nature."

It is time to call forth the angels of our better nature.

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