The Washington Post

Detroit’s bankruptcy and the absence of urban policy

Chief correspondent

A national urban policy would not have saved Detroit, but the city’s bankruptcy filing on Thursday was a vivid reminder of how the problems of America’s cities have long ceased to be a focal point of the political debate in presidential campaigns or the policy debate in Washington.

The closest the candidates came in 2012 to the specific topic of the cities was the contentious argument between President Obama and Mitt Romney over the federal bailout of the auto industry. Obama pummeled Romney for an article he had written for the New York Times in late 2008 opposing federal intervention. The headline, which Romney did not write, read: “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

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.

Urban policy would not necessarily have saved Detroit because other cities have rebounded from similar conditions without massive federal intervention or coordinated action.

Steel was once as central to Pittsburgh’s economy and identity as automobiles have been to Detroit. When the steel industry imploded decades ago, Pittsburgh eventually reinvented itself. Its unemployment as of this spring was below 7 percent. Detroit’s was 16 percent. Pittsburgh is a far smaller city than Detroit — it is not even among the nation’s top 50 in population today — but Detroit’s decline still stands in contrast to what has happened elsewhere.

Other cities have dealt more effectively with their problems by tackling them with a local focus and a local consensus. Detroit was sometimes hampered by leadership inadequate to the problems, certainly during the tenure of Kwame Kilpatrick during the previous decade. The city hoped for a rebirth with the election of former National Basketball Association star Dave Bing, who came in with great goodwill, but he could not fend off the bankruptcy.

There is another reason why the fate of cities is no longer a broad topic of discussion. Republicans feel little incentive to get behind initiatives aimed at the cities dominated by Democratic mayors and voters. Democratic politicians have stepped back from speaking about it, in part for fear of exacerbating racial differences or appearing more interested in the problems of urban minorities than middle-class suburbanites. Swing voters live in the suburbs, not the cities.

Neither of the last two Democratic presidents — Obama or Bill Clinton— made urban problems a focal point of his political message. Clinton’s focus was on the forgotten middle class. He offered an economic message that he hoped would resonate with middle-class voters regardless of race, rather than policies that explicitly focused on the poor, as President Lyndon B. Johnson had done in the 1960s.

Context was everything in that campaign. Clinton ran for president at a time when the Democratic Party was on its heels, in part because once-loyal white, working-class voters had moved to support Ronald Reagan because of policies such as busing and affirmative action that Democrats had championed. To show he was a New Democrat, Clinton emphasized welfare reform rather than Great Society-style initiatives.

Obama has governed at a time of diminished resources and a lack of political consensus. As a result, what the administration has done is smaller bore with less explicit focus on calling these initiatives part of an urban policy. There was money in Obama’s jobs initiative that would have helped cities, but that legislation went nowhere.

Administration officials have talked for some time about trying to more efficiently connect various programs that touch on cities’ problems. They are looking at ways to help Detroit now that it is heading into bankruptcy. As Biden said, they have no real answers yet, but officials at the White House and the Housing and Urban Development Department have begun to explore options. Yet a symbol of the federal government’s limitations is this: On Monday, HUD will be closed because of sequestration.

The days of an urban policy, as William Galston of the Brookings Institution put it on Friday are “long past.” There is neither the political will nor the financial wherewithal. Detroit’s bankruptcy, however much of the responsibility rests with bad management, political conflict and poor governance there, puts the focus back on the importance of urban vitality and raises the question of what role the federal government has in helping to bring that about.

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