THE HOUSE of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on how much federal urban aid should be concentrated in the cities where the gravest problems are. At issue is the distribution of over $4 billion a year in community-development funds.
The purpose of the aid is to help local governments combat blight, arrest deterioration in housing and public facilities, and strengthen public services in lower-income areas. Logically, then, the grants should go primarily to communities where such problems are the most acute. However, logic is only one factor in the political calculus of any formula grant program. Thus, when the law was enacted three years ago, Congress and the Ford administration settled on a formula that relies on relative poverty, population and overcrowding in housing. But while that measures strains in growing areas, it slights the cities whose populations are stagnant or declining - where overcrowding is a lesser problem than decay and abandonment of aging homes. Such cities, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, now suffer the greatest economic erosion and fiscal stress.
The defects in the 1974 for mula were offset at first by a "hold-harmless" provision that prevented sharp cuts in aid to cities that had been receiving substantial aid under previous programs. As that guarantee has run out, however, it has become plain that if the law is not changed, increasing shares of future aid will go to growing cities and suburbs, primarily in the South and West. This would undercut older communities such as Boston, Akron and Kansas City.
In an attempt to strike a better balance, the House banking committee and the Carter administration have devised a new aid formula that emphasizes the age of housing stock and the extent to which each city's population growth has lagged behind the average. These factors, while not perfect, are rather good indicators of urban decline and economic weakness. The committee realized, however, that shifting to this approach exclusively would be politically unsaleable. The pending bill would thus apply both formulas, so that future grants would be concentrated in communities suffering problems from either growth or decline.
This is a creative compromise, and it deserves support. It makes considerable sense in policy terms, especially at a time when so many questions about the evolution of American cities and the course of future growth have hardly been touched. Politically, it should help to reduce the tensions and jockeying between "snowbelt" and "sunbelt" representatives. The question, after all, is not which region gets more money, but which cities deserve more help.