Urban Policy Next
Fiscal expert Roy Bahl once told Congress, “There has always been a federal urban policy. Unfortunately, no one has ever known what it was.” That’s in part because of confusion over what “urban” policy means and in part because of the lack of consensus—particularly since the tumult of the 1960s—over what that policy should be.
Urban policies are the rules and incentives that shape the prosperity, equity, and environmental sustainability of the metropolitan regions in which 8 in 10 people live. Urban policy ought to focus on coordination of human and capital resources of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to address local concerns and problems, response to positive as well as negative spillover effects of individual and collective actions, and investment in the assets—transportation, energy, water, waste, cultural institutions, and other infrastructure—that make places successful. Rural areas likewise need place policies that address these issues—but on their own terms.
Urban policy is distinct from the much bigger category of domestic policies that affect the lives of individuals in urbanized areas. The boundary is fuzzy sometimes, but the distinction matters. For example, recently revamped FHA mortgage insurance, which makes stable housing finance available to millions of homebuyers, is not an “urban” policy. Most federal transportation policy is urban policy—and hugely important for the healthy development of metro regions.
As president, you should make job creation, infrastructure, environmental sustainability, crime, and housing the centerpieces of your urban policy. A series of savvy, fiscally responsible, yet bold initiatives in these areas could make a big difference on the ground and broaden the constituency for further change.
The jobs strategy would address our economy’s ongoing failure to produce enough jobs paying a “living” or family-supporting wage. Work supports, such as childcare and health insurance, and wage supplements (most important, an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit) are essential for raising incomes and improving the quality of life on the bottom and at the middle of our society, which is now more unequal than at any time since the 1920s. These are not urban policies, though they matter enormously to cities, as well as suburbs, where poverty has grown rapidly.
One of our most stubborn economic problems is that we have yet to replace disappearing high-wage industrial jobs with any meaningful equivalent that most Americans can attain. And the orthodoxy of the past two decades—that every region should reinvent itself as a high-technology “knowledge” economy—is, for many reasons, myopic as well as unrealistic.
We need a ground game, centered on regional job-creation partnerships, for creating a clean-energy economy. The most promising target? Creating millions of jobs in the skilled trades through savvy finance of energy-efficiency upgrades and home retrofitting, plus smart investments in infrastructure.
This is urban policy because it cannot be airmailed from Washington via one-size-fits-all blueprints. It requires local adaptability as well as public/private coordination, operating under clear standards and oversight. Excellent tools—which have leveraged modest federal dollars with massive amounts of private capital, and have a track record of hard-won lessons—already exist in HUD’s economic development grant and loan programs aimed at states and localities. Plus, there is the patchwork of programs—which can and should be rationalized—at the Economic Development Administration, Labor (where we need a Workforce Investment Act 2.0), and other agencies.
Xavier De Souza Briggs is associate professor of soci- ology and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His books include The Geography of Opportunity and the recently published Democracy as Problem-Solving: Civic Capacity in Communities across the Globe.