A Complaint About Feds' Neglect of Cities:
How One OSU Law Prof Skirts the Issues
In the winter issue of the urban journal The Next American City, Ohio State law professor John Powell explores how federal neglect has left some of our cities in almost as bad a shape as New Orleans after Katrina's devastation. The opening spread of the piece, headlined "Gradual Disasters--A Hurricane Devastated New Orleans, Decades of Neglect Have Been Just as Devastating to Cities Like Detroit and Cleveland," contains a stark photo of an abandoned house in inner city Cleveland.
Sorry to say, I found this mostly a predictable rant about Washington's neglect of older core cities, which is now a very old story (it began during the first Reagan administration, a generation ago). Power, who also directs the university's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, serves up some ho-hum stuff. "While the news media swooped in to ponder how New Orleanians would make a living with thousands of businesses out of commision and no tourism dollars to speak of, not many national newspapers ran stories about a study released earlier this year that found that nearly a third of Cleveland's residents--32%--were living below the poverty line."
He ascribes all this to "spatial racism," a term coined five years ago by Chicago's Catholic cardinal. He writes: "we have used space, land use planning and infrastructure investment to do the work of earlier Jim Crow laws that the country formally repudiated." He concludes by observing that "while some resources have begun to flow into Gulf Coast reconstruction, the federal government is reducing its commitment and funding to other key programs, such as community development grants in struggling cities like Detroit and Cleveland. Reducing support for these programs will further heighten the isolation and vulnerability of our inner city communities of color."
There's only one problem with all of this: it simplistically suggests that if only we would invest more in our cities, they would somehow magically bloom, as if we haven't already tried (and failed at) that approach, since at least LBJ's War on Poverty. More recently (something he doesn't mention) the feds injected not inconsiderable amounts of aid to struggling inner cities through the Empowerment Zone program, pushed through during the Clinton Administration (alas, Cleveland didn't qualify for one, but HUD eventually awarded it a supplemental zone, something of a consolation prize). The good professor should get himself out of his ivory tower and poke around to find out what happened with all that: much of it was wasted by garden-variety political corruption, with minority elites close to city hall skimming off funds through sham minority contracting rackets.
Interestingly enough, his own industry, the Academic-Poverty-Industrial complex, is not without its own complicity in all this. Our own Cleveland Foundation (which wrote the Empowerment Zone application, grandly imagining they were rethinking how services would be provided to the poor) and Mandel Center for Urban Poverty showered attention, gold-plated studies, endless outreach (as well as numerous press releases) on this, to little lasting avail. Today, these neighborhoods have many of the same problems and underlying pathologies they've always suffered under, and simply injecting more federal support isn't going to change that. So what is the answer? I only wish I knew. But I do know that moaning about lack of federal attention to our inner cities is worse than a waste of time. It's a way to talk around the problem while pretending we're addressing it.