Carter and the Inner Cities


JIMMY CARTER'S STROLL through the South Bronx rubble earlier this month indicated yet again that the President has a strong sense of the appropriate, a calculated feel for how the prestige of his office can be used to evoke a response from the American public. For a man who fashioned himself as the candidate of the compassionate, the visit was a natural one, as typical of Carter as his hike down Pennsylvania Ave. nine months ago today.

It is, nonetheless, important to understand this most recent use of symbolism for what it was: a cosmetic means of finessing the absence of a comprehensive urban policy. Carter is simply not ready to transmit his compassion into concrete initiatives; he is not fully committed to helping rebuild the cities--the visual image of him in the Bronx notwithstanding. Such was clear from something the President said during the visit: that there is no need to search for solutions beyond programs already proposed or in existence.

It is not as if Carter doesn't understand the social pathology involved--the role poverty and high unemployment play in the cycle of destruction, depopulation and ultimate demolition of urban areas. His welfare plan, now being insidiously nibbled at in Sen. Russel D. Long's (D.-La.) Finance Committee, is a basically constructive one. The $1.4 billion worth of public sector jobs and focus on low-income private employment, combined with last year's $6 billion public works stimulus package, are steps in the right direction--and about as much as can be expected from an Administration that never was full-employment oriented in the first place. The plan's tax credits and benefit increases are also helpful, especially since they will bring some measure of relief to overburdened state and local welfare programs.

Carter, as he described it to Urban League Director Vernon Jordan when the two clashed publicly over domestic policy last summer, sees himself as the "last hope of the needy." If his welfare plan is any indication, the President is in fact somewhat responsive to the cries of the urban poor, the cries of "We want money!" "We want jobs!" directed towards his car as it moved through the South Bronx.

BUT WELFARE AND JOB PROGRAMS do not an urban policy make. Moreover, the bombedout World War II look of the South Bronx and limits their ability to help urban areas. indirectly by attacking poverty and other sources of urban decay. Welfare and employment stimuli will prove regenerative for the cities only in the long term. In the short run, the tendency of these programs to focus on people at the expense of their physical surroundings and the delivery of services limits it ability to help urban areas.

Witness, for instance, Department of Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano's ill-fated (luckily) attempt to scrap the $5.3 billion worth of subsidies for construction and rental of low-income housing in favor of providing the same amount to welfare recipients with no strings attached. One reason the South Bronx is in such bad shape, the New York Times reports, is that welfare money is not finding its way into the housing stock.

Preserving the cities, then, must involve efforts to deal with the manifestations of social problems--housing and crime for instance--as well as with the social concerns themselves. The form this has taken in recent years is the Community Development (CD) program, a plan providing localities with block grants and the leeway to spend them as they see fit.

The idea--originally Richard Nixon's--is a good one as far as it goes, even though the suburban and Sunbelt-biased formula for distributing the funds was in drastic need of the reform provided last week by the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1977. The Act shifts more money to decaying older cities and establishes an Urban Development Action Grant Program to aid the economic development of downtown areas.

But if that sounds like an urban policy, it isn't, at least not the kind that should be expected from a Democratic President who stresses compassion. Merely correcting Nixon's errors hardly constitutes the necessary approach. That's why Carter's comment during his South Bronx visit--that we should try to work within existing programs--is so disappointing. It indicates that he has taken to heart the view that the failure of former President Lyndon B. Johnson's programmatic, co-ordinated response to urban problems has precluded the possibility of a similar effort today--even though such an effort would undoubtedly use the experience of the 1960's to make the programs more effective.

That Jimmy Carter will never initiate a "Marshall Plan for the cities," as Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D.-Minn.) recently called his own vision of urban restoration, is not surprising, only frustrating. Indeed, throwing money at problems clearly has its limitations and the CD program has shown that localities are better suited to implement certain programs than is the federal government. But it does not necessarily follow that $12.4 billion is a fair level of funding for all of community development in the United States when a single program for a missile of dubious value--the MX--may cost as much as $35-40 billion. Neither does it follow that revenue sharing means the federal government can't make any attempt to coordinate urban policy in a comprehensive way.

In short, the present limitations in money spent and efforts expended are such that the word "committment" is not an appropriate description of the Administration's attitude towards cities.

ALL OF THIS IS NOT TO SAY that Carter will take no action on urban problems. White House discussion are underway on the prospect of a federal "Urbank" to help attract businesses into aging cities by promising low-interest loans. The President is clearly interested in ways of using the all-important private sector to help the cities. And it is still early. Carter has flooded Congress with other legislation; proposals on city problems had best not be sent up to Capitol Hill quite yet.

But the question is not one of timing or foot-dragging. It is one of an impression of overall responsiveness--of whether there will actually some day be a comprehensive, well-thought-out framework for proposals on low-income housing construction (preferably low-level), public transportation, municipal bond underwriting, redlining, crime-fighting, etc. Carter's "let's work with what we have" attitude, combined with his reuqirement for rebuilding the cities--that it not come at the expense of a balanced budget and strong defense--does not bode well for those issues or the future of the nation's cities in general.

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