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PERSPECTIVE ON CONGRESS : The Real Budget Train Wreck : It's our cities that will be derailed if proposed cuts in the social safety net prevail, but the rest of the nation will follow.

October 02, 1995|HENRY G. CISNEROS | Henry G. Cisneros is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

America is headed for a train wreck this fall, but it's not the federal government that will be violently derailed. It's America's cities and the hopes of millions of city residents for a better life.

The cuts voted by Congress in the 1996 budget threaten to wreak havoc on our cities, especially in our most vulnerable urban neighborhoods.

It is hard for the public to get a handle on the potential damage because there is no single appropriations bill for cities. One subcommittee cuts federal housing assistance. Another cuts mass transit funds. Another cuts funds for Medicaid, food stamps, welfare, education and job training. Yet another subcommittee cuts money for economic development. And still another slashes funds for clean water, cleanup of contaminated industrial sites and other environmental programs critical to urban revitalization.

The Republican congressional leadership--which wants to cut taxes $245 billion for wealthy Americans--would also scale back the earned-income tax credit and raise taxes on 14.4 million low-income workers.

None of these piecemeal cuts is specifically targeted at cities, but taken together, they hit our cities hardest. They hit poor people and low-income working families who live in our cities' most troubled neighborhoods over and over again.

Imagine what it will be like to be a low-income working parent. There is no room for your preschooler in Head Start; your second-grader, who is having trouble reading, is consigned to an over-crowded public school classroom where she falls further behind; your teen-age son can't find a summer job and hangs out with a street gang; your hopes of getting off the waiting list for housing assistance are dashed.

In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, congressional cuts would bar 3,400 children from Head Start. The cuts would deny special reading, writing and math assistance to 196,400 students. More than 32,000 young people would be denied job training. Low-income working families would take home $245 less a year because of reductions in the earned-income tax credit. Other cuts voted by the House would deny rental assistance to 2,741 poor and low-income households and deny 72,000 low-income households home heating and cooling assistance. Programs to fight drugs and violence in schools and public housing would be gutted or wiped out.

Current discussions in Congress about cutting spending and balancing the budget completely ignore the devastating impact that massive cuts will have on fragile city economies. Ignored are the layoffs that will occur in hospitals when Medicare and Medicaid are cut. Ignored are the retail businesses that will fail and the jobs that will be lost in low-income communities when food stamps and Aid to Families With Dependent Children benefits are reduced and rent in HUD-assisted housing is raised, and community residents' purchasing power plummets. The economic damage that budget decisions being made in Congress today may do tomorrow in neighborhoods struggling to stay afloat is almost incalculable.

Ultimately, our nation's economy will suffer because metropolitan economies are America's primary generators of jobs and wealth. However, their efficiency as economic engines is impaired by growing disparities between cities and suburbs; the suburbanization of jobs and the middle class has left many urban centers socially and economically isolated. The growing concentration of poverty in urban neighborhoods and older suburbs has compounded problems of poor education, discrimination, joblessness, teen pregnancy, drug abuse and crime, perpetuating a vicious cycle of poverty, inequality, violence and despair.

The consequences of urban isolation and distress are felt far beyond the inner city, undermining the economic competitiveness of our metropolitan areas, deepening divisions within our society, eroding the bonds of trust and common purpose that are the basis of our civic culture.

America's cities and suburbs will rise or fall together. That is why President Clinton has advanced the most comprehensive plan of action for urban economic revitalization in a generation. The President's plan combines economic policies that promote sustained, low-inflation growth with targeted public investments--in housing, education, transportation, economic development and public health and safety. These investments will empower poor residents of distressed inner-city communities to share in the opportunities of economic growth and become contributing, tax-paying participants in our economy. They will convert these communities from loss centers to profit centers and strengthen our entire nation.

Congress has taken a much shorter view. It would rush to balance the budget by 2002 while declaring a $245-billion tax dividend for the wealthiest people in America. This is no way to help people lift themselves and build stronger cities and a stronger nation. It is a sure-fire formula for dashing people's dreams for a better life, derailing the nation's urban economies and running America's economy into the ground.

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