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"City Problems Are Regional and National Concerns,"

by Margaret Weir July/August 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

For the past three decades urban policy has sought to improve cities as places, or to ameliorate the "pathologies" of the people who live in cities. David Rusk challenges this narrow perspective on urban problems, contending that only metropolitan-wide strategies will rescue ailing cities and the poor people in them. He brings a strong and cogent voice to the growing chorus now arguing that the fates of cities and suburbs are intertwined and that regional solutions are needed to remedy urban problems.

Rusk argues that traditional notions of place-based urban policy will not work in the older "inelastic" cities of the Northeast and Midwest. His arguments are persuasive. Local political arrangements, the organization of social policies and taxing authority have overwhelmingly promoted growth in the suburbs and starved the older inner cities. Feeding this fragmentation are racial divisions that have left poor minorities paying the price for our neglect of cities. We can't expect urban policy-such as enterprise zones or nonprofit housing-to have much impact when most other policies are actively working to disadvantage cities.

Rusk's argument reflects the major changes that have occurred in our older metropolitan areas in the past few decades. In the 1980s, two-thirds of job growth occurred in suburbs. As the fiscal base of cities has eroded, the services they offer have deteriorated markedly. Many of the public services most important in escaping poverty and enjoying a reasonable quality of life are provided and-in large part-financed locally. These include such things as library and recreation services, policing and crime control, and, most crucially, education.

Given these circumstances, is it fair to restrict the fate of the urban poor to solutions that can be created in cities? Rusk's answer is no. His proposals for metro-wide affordable housing requirements, revenue sharing and public housing would begin to create more equitable resources across space and would offer the urban poor more choices about where to live.

However, Rusk's enthusiasm for large jurisdictions per se is less convincing. Rusk's claim that "inelastic central cities average only 59% of their suburbs' income levels while the elastic central cities essentially have income levels equal to their suburbs" is tautological-and it says nothing about poverty in these elastic cities. In fact, according to a recent study by Paul Jargowsky of the Univ. of Texas-Dallas, three of Rusk's elastic cities (Dallas, Houston and Memphis) were among the top ten metro lit areas with the most Black ghetto reside in 1990. Rusk notes that there is 25% less racial segregation in his elastic cities, but racial segregation there is still substantial.

Larger jurisdictions may make geographic mobility somewhat easier but they are no guarantee against the emergence of isolated poor neighborhoods. Likewise, they create the possibility for more equal public services but they do not ensure that poor neighborhoods receive the services they need. In fact, equal public services rarely occur without mobilization of the poor-something that is often difficult in these political systems.

These drawbacks to larger political jurisdictions suggest that metropolitan strategies are only part of the solution. Even if we substantially improve the mobility of the urban poor, there still will be poor neighborhoods and the need for policies to help rebuild them. Increased mobility and community building are both necessary and can be complementary. The notion that we must choose between them falsely polarizes the debate. The real policy question is how best to combine these strategies so that they inverse one another.

Rusk suggests that state government is the appropriate focus for creating metropolitan policies. State governments have broad and substantially untapped powers to promote regional approaches to urban problems. Rusk's insistence on state responsibility is timely and strategic. The states' failures to exercise their power over land use has been a central component of today's urban crises. But the federal government can still play two important roles. First, it can provide incentives and penalties for states to promote regional approaches to urban issues. States have proved that on their own they will avoid acting. Second, the federal government must provide more direct aid to the poor in the form of income support, housing assistance and employment policies.

Local political structures have encouraged an attitude of "defensive localism" that national political leaders have exploited and amplified by contending that localities are responsible for the problems that occur within their boundaries. David Rusk's metropolitan approach to urban poverty offers a critical starting point for rebuilding broader notions of collective responsibility and common citizenship.

Margaret Weir a member of PRRAC's Social Science Advisory Board, is a Senior Fellow at the Broodings Institution in Washington, DC, where she is studying suburban-city conflicts and emerging prospects for cooperation.

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