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Carter to Cities: Drop Dead


By David H. Feinberg

LAST DECEMBER, Ted Kennedy whisked his campaign into the Big Apple pointing out that President Carter had turned "thumbs down on the people of New York...I believe that 12 long years of Republican administrations is enough," shouted the senator from the stump, "and it's time we elected a real democrat." Amazingly, Senator Kennedy understated his case against the president. Judged by government aid to cities. the Carter years have not been as bad as the Nixon-Ford era; they've been worse. Between 1968 and 1976, while Republicans ruled in the White House, Federal aid to New York City nearly doubled. Since Carter took office in 1977, however, aid has fallen by a total of 11 per cent.

The case of New York underlines the most blatant broken promise of the Carter administration. A "New Deal" coalition of urban blue collar workers and inner-city blacks put Carter over the top in 1976. Almost 19 out of 20 black Americans voted for the former governor of Georgia in that election. New Yorkers went for Carter by nearly a 2-to-1 margin offsetting the pro-Ford upstate vote. Voters in Cincinatti, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also swung their states into the Democratic camp. Even the "solid South" would have split between Ford and Carter had not Southern city-dwellers faithfully come out for the farmer from Plains.

With these facts in mind, a big city party leader remarked on election night 1976 that "We won the election for him. The question is whether he'll show us any gratitude." Three and a half years later, the hopes that urban voters placed in Jimmy Carter remain unfulfilled.

The plight of the American city has grown worse since Carter took office. Devastating fiscal crises have recently pushed Chicago, New York, Cleveland, Detroit, Memphis and many other cities dangerously close to bankruptcy. More tragically, poverty persists for millions of urban dwellers. One out of three children born in New York City, for example, are born out of wedlock--many to adolescent mothers whose welfare checks form their only source of income. But New York's financial woes have made it impossible for that city to increase its welfare payments since 1974 with the effect that inflation has eaten away half the income of these adolescent mothers.

Unemployment in cities is significantly higher than the national average--for urban-based minorities it's often two to three times higher. Many inner-city high schools no longer teach students even the most basic math and English skills. Crime forces city dwellers to live in perpetual fear. Increasingly, poor people cannot find non-dilapidated low income housing in which to live and raise families.

President Carter knew that these problems faced America's cities when he took office over three years ago, Yet despite his promises to attack these urban problems, he has consistently ignored them. Pointing to just one example, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recently wrote that "Mr. Carter has broken his welfare promise. That is what hurts. It is not that he has tried and failed: he has not tried."

Of course the President denies Moynihan's charges. As "proof" he points to the "Comprehensive National Urban Policy" that he submitted to Congress two years ago in March of 1978. But Carter's urban policy contained only token proposals that resulted in little relief to the most economically distressed areas of the U.S. He called for a "New Partnership" among all levels of American government. But the Fed quickly spurned its part of the agreement.

THE PRESIDENT'S only "Comprehensive Urban Policy" is one of words and no action. Carter promised a "National Development Bank" devoted almost entirely to rebuilding distressed urban areas. But no bank has been established. He promised "employment ... to the long-term unemployed and the disadvantaged in cities." Yet this past January unemployment in the United States reached an 18-month high of 6.2 per cent. In New York City, 64,000 people lost their jobs last December alone, and nearly one out of ten workers waited on unemployment lines.

Carter's 1981 "recession" budget will push the national unemployment rate up to about 8 per cent. According to the Congressional Budget Office, nearly one out of four black Americans will be jobless. These blacks constitute the "disadvantaged" and "long-term unemployed" of America's cities. Yet somehow Carter has taken away their jobs, not put them to work. The president has also promised to "provide fiscal relief to the most hard pressed communities," to fund neighborhood organizations, to "provide additional social and health services to the disadvantaged people in cities" and to "improve the urban physical environment"--more and better housing. But this self-declared populist president has sorely disappointed the urban poor. They've seen no new national health plan. Carter's welfare "reform" proposal may establish minimum family payments, but only in certain states of his native South and the Southwest. While Texas--the land of wind-fall profits--would have most of its welfare bills picked up by the Fed, New York would get what Senator Moynihan called "a token 5 per cent increase in Federal participation."

In 1977 Carter walked through the South Bronx and promised fiscal relief. Today this razed neighborhood continues to look like a bombed-out war zone--victimized by arsonists and ruled by street gangs with chains and sawed-off shotguns. His funding of neighborhood groups has also taken a downward turn. When measured in real dollars (adjusted for inflation), Carter's proposed 1981 budget will guarantee a cut in the two major sources of community development funding. The Community Development Block Grants program will suffer a 5 per cent reduction in funding while the president will cut the Urban Development Action Grants by 10 per cent. If Carter were seriously committed to revitalizing America's cities, he would never tolerate these cutbacks in Federal aid.

Worst of all, President Carter has taken the lead in dismantling the Federal government's low-income housing programs. In 1968, President Johnson predicted that to meet the housing needs of America's poor, the Federal government would have to build, subsidize or rehabilitate 600,000 units of low-income housing each year. This goal has never been reached, but Carter's performance in this area makes his Republican predecessors look like radical social democrats. In 1976, under the Ford Administration, 526,721 units of public housing were subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In his 1980 budget, Carter cut this number by more than half.

AT ITS CORE, Carter's neglect of the problems of America's cities translates into an unwillingness to fight poverty or to use the presidency as a force to better the position of poor people and minority groups in American society. The current crisis of America's cities highlights a retreat from the Great Society. Today inner-city poverty entraps millions of Americans--not just blacks. It suffocates them with poor housing, poor schooling and few jobs. And as cities across the United States gasp for new life, Jimmy Carter blows them only hot air.

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