The Need for Coalition
In this very impressive article, Luria and Rogers seek to connect the nascent
regional movement with a more effective economic development strategy that
seeks to improve the economy and promote individual opportunity. I know more
about regionalism than economic development, so I will concentrate my remarks
on the former.
Luria and Rogers argue that cities are important and that it is important
to stop their decline for reasons of morality and economic cost. Both are
valid reasons. However the most compelling political motivation comes from
the rapid decline of inner-ring suburbs, the stagnant nature of blue-collar
developing suburbs, and the consequent politics of self-interest.
Contrary to popular belief, socioeconomic instability does not stop neatly
at central-city borders. As it crosses into inner suburbs, especially into
suburbs that were once blue-collar and middle-class neighborhoods, it accelerates
and intensifies. Older working-class suburban communities have less hopeful
prospects than the cities they surround. Though central cities get hit first
by social and economic change, they have a fiscal, governmental, and social
infrastructure to slow these powerful trends. In contrast, inner suburbs lack
the central city's business district, elite neighborhood tax base, social
welfare and police infrastructure, and network of organized political activity.
Once the trouble hits, they often decline far more rapidly.
Further, while favored-quarter suburbs (generally 25-35 percent of the population
of a metropolitan region) get virtually all of the new development infrastructure
and truly prosper, the patterns of metropolitan polarization play a cruel
joke on most middle and lower middle-income families seeking a better life
at the edge of the region. As they flee the socioeconomic dislocations of
the central cities and inner suburbs, they arrive in rapidly growing school
districts with small tax bases. Because their tax base is inadequate and their
neighborhoods have throngs of young children needing to go to school, their
local governments will build almost anything that stands simply to pay the
bills. In part perhaps because of overcrowding and minimal spending per pupil,
these districts have some of the highest drop-out and lowest college attendance
rates in their regions.
Despite all these troubles, however, the creation of a coalition between
the central cities and inner, low tax-base suburbs is no mean feat. These
middle-income (often working-class) suburbs, which have been a loose cannon
politically since 1968, hold the balance of power on regional issues and arguably
on most political issues in the United States. Our most distinguished political
commentators have written about the central significance of this group in
holding and maintaining a ruling political coalition.
On the merits, these middle-income, blue-collar suburbs are the largest prospective
winners in regional reform. To them, tax-base sharing means lower property
taxes and better services, particularly better-funded schools. Regional housing
policy means, over time, fewer units of affordable housing crowding their
doorstep. Once understood, this combination is unbeatable. What stands in
the way of this coalition, however, are long-term, powerful resentments and
distrust, based on class and race and fueled by every political campaign since
Hubert Humphrey lost the White House in 1968 and Archie Bunker became a Republican.
I think this is the central problem: rebuilding a spatial and economic coalition
between the central city and the struggling suburbs and their residents. I
think that this will aid in both regionalism and economic reform. But for
the reasons I mentioned, we have our work cut out for us.
As to the second broad thrust of the article--high road v. low road development--I
need to be educated. As a practical politician, I have been disgusted with
low-road strategies. But I have also been hard put to tell poor, struggling
communities, from which all economic activity is leaving, to wait for a better
policy or not to act. Here we need a concrete transitional program. Further,
I believe, but do not know, that solving these problems will require a powerfully
reinvigorated labor movement; that as the world economy becomes seamless,
we must use some of the profits to educate and train our workforce and cushion
the impact of the transition; and that a metropolitan and national policy
that discourages bidding wars between cities, states, and suburbs and leads
to equity among jurisdictions could help. We need more discussion on these
issues: Luria and Rogers are to be commended for starting it.