Speaking by conference call to a group of mayors gathered in Philadelphia recently, President Obama appealed to them to join together for a common purpose: reducing the violence affecting African American men and boys.
“Tell us what works in your cities,” the president told the gathering of Cities United, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter recalled. “Let us know. Use us. Use us as a resource.”
Obama chided some for not submitting their plans for inclusion in the year-old My Brother’s Keeper program, which will be buttressed by a new nonprofit alliance the president will tout Monday in New York. Afterward, Gary, Ind., Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson told her staff, a little guiltily, “We’ve got to get ours in. The president is asking for our homework.”
For six years, Obama, who arguably has stronger ties to American cities than any president since Theodore Roosevelt, has been trying to reorient the way the federal government carries out urban policy.
Gone are the days of federal planners demolishing neighborhoods, driving highways through downtown areas and raining money on big projects. Instead, the Obama administration has been playing the role of coordinator, guiding cities and mayors to tap private money through programs such as My Brother’s Keeper and to take the greatest advantage of a steadily dwindling amount of federal money for urban affairs.
In the wake of riots in Baltimore, this approach has come under closer scrutiny. And the report card is mixed. Amid a nationwide urban renaissance, poverty and inequality are dire. Baltimore’s worst neighborhoods are as bad as they’ve ever been, with yawning gaps in life expectancy, high school graduation rates, income, employment, incarceration and housing between them and more affluent areas a short distance away.
Mayors across the country are worried that Baltimore isn’t unique and that unrest could spread to their cities. On Tuesday morning last week, several mayors asked to talk to the new attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch, and by 5 p.m. that day, Lynch’s second on the job, she joined a call with more than 50 mayors and elected officials from across the country to discuss law enforcement steps.
“The Obama policies or initiatives labeled urban policy tend to be coordinating efforts,” said Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, who helped the Obama transition in 2009. “I don’t want to dismiss or diminish that. Frankly, the federal government has tended to operate in a very compartmentalized way, and solutions to most urban challenges must be integrated and holistic. That’s been the Obama mantra and that’s been their programmatic focus.”
Senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett said in an interview that “there has been concrete action on the ground” but that Republican resistance has impeded the efforts from spreading more broadly.
“We do know how to address these issues,” Jarrett said. “What has been frustrating has been the congressional Republicans’ focus on a top-down economic strategy rather than the middle-class economics the president has proposed.”
That has left many cities grappling with the politics of lower-class economics. Traditional federal funding, for example, still passes through a variety of bureaucracies. In Baltimore, says Urban Institute expert Erika Poethig, 55 percent of federal money goes through four agencies reporting to different governments — including the State Highway Administration, federal Head Start programs and independent HIV projects. Only one of them, a relatively small $23 million block grant, is under the control of Baltimore’s city government.
But Obama administration officials point to signs of improvement when different agencies focus on specific places they have designated Promise Zones: a jump in the Sam Houston High School graduation rate, from 46 percent to 84 percent, in an area of San Antonio singled out for coordinated aid led by the Department of Housing and Urban Development; the installation of new streetlights in Detroit with Energy Department aid; and the role of a White House office called Strong Cities, Strong Communities in overcoming years of gridlock and establishing a regional transportation authority for southeastern Michigan.
Broader initiatives are also important, they say, citing a 33 percent drop in homelessness among veterans, the repair of hurricane and rioting damage in New Orleans, affordable health care, Justice Department work with local police forces, and investments under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Few administrations have had as many senior officials with experience in micro-level urban policy. The president himself was a Chicago community organizer, budget director Shaun Donovan ran the New York City housing department, HUD Secretary Julián Castro led anti-poverty efforts as three-time mayor of San Antonio, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan ran Chicago’s public schools.
Obama’s presidency started out with large ambitions for cities. Though the economic crisis and health-care reform were major distractions, the stimulus bill passed in early 2009 also provided huge amounts of money to cities. And Obama seemed determined to make the most of it, drawing on his experience in Chicago.
“We’re going to put an end to throwing money at what doesn’t work — and we’re going to start investing in what does work and make sure that we’re encouraging that,” Obama said on July 13, 2009, five months after he established a White House Office of Urban Affairs to lead the charge. “Instead of isolated and monolithic public housing projects that too often trap residents in a cycle of poverty and isolate them further, we want to invest in proven strategies that actually transform communities and enhance opportunity for residents and businesses alike.”
But the persistent nature of poverty and tough budget constraints ever since the economic recovery act have tempered expectations.
The new My Brother’s Keeper Alliance has raised $500 million in private donations in response to the president’s call, but that falls far short of what most urban policy analysts say is needed to make a dent in the ills of inner cities. Moreover, many of the individuals, corporations and foundations contributing to the alliance were already funding similar programs.
When it comes to zeroing in on Promise Zones, the administration only designates five such zones a year, leaving many cities unaltered. And somewhere along the way, the White House Office of Urban Affairs that had been announced with fanfare was quietly folded into the White House Domestic Policy Council.
“This administration has fallen into the trap of those before it, in promising grand ideas and then seeing them diluted or abandoned over time,” said Patrick T. Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University.
Congress is part of the problem, administration officials say. “Sequestration has fallen hard on everybody, but particularly hard on cities,” Donovan said. And the amount of federal money available for cities may soon drop even further.
“Sequestration has fallen hard on everybody but particularly hard on cities,” Donovan said. And the amount of federal money available for cities may soon drop even further. Recently, the House Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Committee passed a bill that would cut funds for Choice Neighborhoods, which provides about $30 million in grants to seed housing projects across the country. Instead of the $250 million Obama requested or the $60 million in the current budget, the committee would slash the appropriation to just $20 million, not enough for a single project.
The Transportation Department’s TIGER program might also get axed. The program awards funds on a competitive basis for road, rail, transit or ports, giving cities the flexibility to opt for, say, light rail instead of roads. The House committee would provide $100 million for TIGER in 2016, $400 million below the 2015 enacted level and $1.15 billion below the administration’s 2016 request.
“Clearly Congress hasn’t given us what we wanted,” said Cecilia Muñoz, director of Obama’s Domestic Policy Council, “but we’re trying to get the most mileage, the most impact out of every dollar that we do have to spend.” A former HUD official said that at one point the city of Detroit had $100 million in unspent block grant money that the administration helped free up. Obama officials said they have been working within the political and fiscal constraints they face.
In Detroit, Mayor Mike Duggan said the administration has been a “full partner,” providing $4 million for zero percent loans and a separate mortgage pool from legal settlements with Bank of America. The administration also steered $100 million from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, set up during the financial crisis, to demolish about 8,000 burned out and abandoned houses. And the administration also channelled $25 million in unused but appropriated funds to the city to buy 50 new buses.
But Duggan noted that the regional transport authority the administration helped forge has no money and remains a shell. And he said the Energy Department offered advice about installing LED street lamps, but no money.
Nutter said the administration has still directed millions toward urban areas, through transportation, housing and education grants. “They understand cities. And not only do they get it, they’re doing something,” he said, adding that money disbursed under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act “may not have been characterized as a city-focused or metro-focused program, but the reality is that’s where much of the money went. But for those programs, we would be in much worse shape.”
Sometimes, the advances come in very small increments. In Gary, Edsal Manufacturing - which produces utility shelves - has agreed to hire 300 workers who have historically had trouble finding employment. Though it might not seem like much, Mayor Freeman-Wilson said, it could transform abandoned buildings that mark some of the city’s neighborhoods.
“If I get 100 of those 300 jobs to invest in real estate, or even rent an apartment, then I’ve created income for the community,” she said.
The My Brother’s Keeper initiative shows both the promise and limitations facing Obama.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who directs the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, said local initiatives aimed at expanding mentorship and other services for black youth “will benefit tremendously” from the president and first lady “leading the philanthropic effort for supporting that infrastructure.”
But he suggested that Obama sees the challenges people of color in urban areas face as more akin to the country’s aging physical infrastructure and needs significant federal support to improve. “Those are big government issues,” he said. “I do have a concern that he take his experience and build on it in a way that we don’t see more privatization of the public good.”
Muhammad added that the funding devoted to the initiative “is a drop
in the bucket” compared to these communities’ collective need. “You can’t really expect national impact when you’re playing small ball with the money,” he said. “That kind of approach does not a New Deal make. It’s just not sufficient.”
Obama officials say they can still make a difference. In a September 2013 TED talk, Donovan, then secretary of HUD, said the average child in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty is likely to participate in programs operated by 11 different federal agencies.
“There is no silver bullet for what a poor kid faces growing up in poverty,” Donovan said. “If you got the departments of Housing, Education, Transportation and others not working together around that kid’s life, you’re going to fail.”