It’s notable in retrospect that Romney dealt solely with steps he thought were necessary — and unnecessary — to restore the vitality of the auto industry. He said nothing about the various ailments of urban decline and decay that had hollowed out the once-vibrant city of Detroit, which happened to be his hometown. Nor, for that matter, did Obama.
Now Detroit itself 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 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 ignores the cities. There are many programs that have an impact on big cities. Education policies and particularly 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. The president’s stimulus program deposited considerable money into the cities.
Federal policy, when the government has taken action, has not been an explicit benefit to cities, even in times when politicians thought about 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 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 knocked down in the 1970s. The infamous Cabrini-Green projects in Chicago were demolished in the 1990s. Those failed experiments brought some necessary humility to urban planning and politicians.