photo: Cabrini Green housing project, Chicago (now demolished)
Is the Obama administration doing enough to address the problems of urban poverty and lack of opportunity for poor people in cities?
The situation of poverty, inequality, and deprivation in most of America's cities is severe. Wherever regional studies of health status have been carried out, inner cities show up as abnormally unhealthy populations. Unemployment rates in large cities are generally significantly higher than state and national averages. High school completion rates are lower -- often shockingly lower. Housing stock and neighborhoods are in poor condition. Fresh fruits and vegetables are difficult to come by -- because large grocery stores have often moved outside city limits. And all of this implies that the overall quality of life for the poorest half of most urban populations in the U.S. is low. (Here is a 1988 publication on estimates of urban quality of life -- the most recent I can find!)
There is no doubt that President Obama is aware of the gravity of the urban crisis. He knows Chicago intimately, a city that reflects many of these life-limiting circumstances for several million poor people. And his speech of July 18, 2007 reflects an acute understanding of the problem and a commitment to help the country address the crisis. But the question still needs asking: in the first six months of the Obama administration, has there been enough attention given to the problems of cities in America? And so far, the answer seems to be "no."
These are problems that demand federal solutions. States are generally fiscally unable to take the steps that would significantly improve the economic prospects for urban people in Cleveland, Oakland, Miami, Detroit, or Hartford. And all too often state legislatures are dominated by an anti-urban bias that makes significant state investment unlikely in any case. But cities represent a national crisis, not simply a regional crisis. As Richard Florida emphasizes (CreativeClass), cities are potentially the source of the greatest resources of creativity and growth that the country possesses. But too many American cities are hobbled by concentrated poverty, failing schools, corrupt city administrations, and zero-sum politics, with predictable results. The new businesses, technology innovations, and high-end service providers that should be the basis of revitalization of America's cities are simply not showing up downtown. There is very, very little progress in quality of life for the poorest 60% of people living in cities across the country.
Moreover, it needs to be recognized that a central part of this puzzle has to do with race. American cities seem to have become machines for reproducing poverty among African-Americans, Latinos, and other minority populations. Far from being a post-racial society, our cities threaten to become a permanent location of racial disadvantage. Residential segregation, discrimination in employment, and a public education system that is sharply racialized in effect seems to create a set of interlocking institutions that make it all but impossible to narrow the race gap -- in income, quality of life, health status, or education.
So where is the Federal agenda for urban transformation? One of President Obama's priorities is education reform for K-12 schools, and this is certainly relevant and important as a means of addressing poverty and racial inequalities. But it isn't enough. Somehow we need initiatives that will change the game for the tens of millions of disadvantaged children and young people in American cities; that will give them the opportunity to gain the education and skills that will allow them to find their place in a vibrant economy; and to reduce the unacceptable but persistent inequalities of basic life prospects that our cities still create for so many Americans.