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PERSPECTIVE ON URBAN AMERICA : The Rot Starts in Washington : Virtually everything that ails our cities can be traced to federal policies spawned bythe Reagan/Bush agenda.

SAVING OUR CITIES: First in a series

December 10, 1992|DAVID W. LYON and JAMES B. STEINBERG | David W. Lyon, a RAND vice president, and James D. Steinberg, a senior analyst, co-edited "Urban America."

In the weeks following the Los Angeles disturbances last April, President Bush and congressional leaders promised swift federal action to help this and other cities cope with their urgent problems.

Six months and many compromises later, the Hill produced a typical piece of Christmas-tree legislation. There were gaudy ornaments for other constituencies but little more than a scaled-down enterprise zone package for America's cities. Even that bit of tinsel fell victim to the President's veto.

The federal government's inadequate response to urban America's tinderbox condition comes as little surprise; for more than a decade, Washington has turned its back on the cities. Under Presidents Reagan and Bush, it became fashionable to argue that urban problems are local problems, best left to local solutions paid for by local resources. That rhetoric fit the era's political climate, but it was merely a fig leaf for inaction: Communities with the greatest problems were least able to afford effective solutions.

Yet many of those problems are directly or indirectly attributable to federal actions. In a new book being released today, "Urban America: Policy Choices for Los Angeles and the Nation," senior RAND analysts show that key federal policy choices in such areas as employment, immigration, housing, health and social services have had a disproportionate impact on cities.

Take employment policy. During the 1980s, the Administration refused to push for real "full employment," preferring a policy that elevated inflation-fighting over reducing poverty and joblessness. This trade-off took a heavy toll on the hardest to employ, especially minority youth who are heavily concentrated in cities.

The unemployed weren't the only ones who paid the price. A combination of trade, tax and macroeconomic policies contributed to a growing wage and income gap between the rich and the rest of America. Our own research at RAND shows that those effects were particularly strong in Los Angeles, where the gap is greater than the national average.

Federal immigration policies, too, have had an enormous impact. Immigration reform and ineffective enforcement of immigration laws have left cities like Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Dallas with the burden of educating growing numbers of immigrant children, providing health care for immigrants who are often uninsured and ineligible for Medicaid, and delivering other basic public services, all with little or no federal assistance.

City streets have become the home of the homeless, putting heavy new demands on public services. In part, the burgeoning homeless problem stems from the federal government's decision to all but abandon support for low-cost housing.

No single federal policy accounts for the troubling state of our cities. But the cumulative effects of choosing low inflation over low unemployment, deficit spending over a balanced budget, free trade over strategic trade, private charity over public responsibility and more immigration over less has had a devastating impact.

Not all urban problems can be laid at the federal government's door. Changing social norms contribute to growing numbers of single-parent families of all races and ethnic groups--and single-parent families face greater risks of poverty and other social and economic problems. Urban schools can't be fixed by money alone; we need new ways of thinking about how schools are run and for whose benefit. Local decision-makers are usually best placed to set priorities; policies are most effective when tailored to meet local circumstances.

But in 1993, we should relearn an important insight from the 1960s: The federal government can and must play a leadership role in revitalizing our cities and restoring hope to our most disadvantaged residents. Under earlier Presidents, the federal government helped take on discrimination in education, housing and the workplace. They began targeting programs like Head Start, which remains one of our best hopes for breaking the poverty cycle. They built low-cost housing and focused national attention by creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Most important, they were committed to jobs for all Americans, not just the most employable, and to economic policies designed to spread prosperity to all segments of American society.

Some well-intentioned efforts failed; the Community Action Program, designed to empower the disenfranchised, failed to give due respect to elected political leaders and established political processes, and helped bring the Great Society program into disrepute. But, as a new Administration prepares to take office in Washington, there is no better time to renew our national commitment to make our cities once again the centers of hope and opportunity for all.

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