Thursday, September 08, 2005

New Orleans Levees: Crushed By the Bipartisan Weight of Suburban Politics

As Ron Fournier of the Associated Press has reported, last year the Army Corps of Engineers asked for $105 million from Congress for hurricane and flood programs for New Orleans, but had its request slashed to $42.5 million; meanwhile, the recent $286.4 billion federal highway bill did manage to provide for such pet projects as a $231 million bridge to a “small, uninhabited Alaskan island.”

The failure of federal authorities to fix the problems, resulting in the devastating breach of New Orleans’ levees in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- after years’ of unheeded warnings by scientists, the Corps and New Orleans’ leading institutions -- is unfortunately part of a broader pattern of bipartisan neglect of cities at the state and federal level that has been taking shape for two decades.

In a 1992 essay in his book Dead Cities entitled “Who Killed L.A.? A Political Autopsy,” Mike Davis observed that as voter demographics have changed, so has the attention paid by state and federal officials to the economic and infrastructural needs of the nation's larger urban areas. In 1992, the year that President Clinton was elected, the nation officially became a “suburban majority” nation, meaning that there were more suburban voters in the country than urban or rural voters. Apparently, suburban white voters had already been a majority of white voters since 1980.

As Davis put it:

The politics of suburbia, notes Fred Siegel in a recent article in Dissent, are “not so much Republican as anti-urban . . . [and] even more anti-Black than anti-urban.” Racial polarization, of course, has been going on for generations across the white-picket-fence border between the suburb and the city. But the dramatic suburbanization of economic growth over the last decade, and the increasing prevalence of strictly rim-to-rim commutes between job and home, have given these “bourgeois utopias” . . . unprecedented political autonomy from the crisis of the core cities . . .

Core cities, for their part, have helplessly watched the reapportionment of their once-decisive political clout in national politics . . . as Carter, Mondale and Dukakis each demonstrated, it was possible to sweep the urban cores and be crushed in the suburbs by the defection of so-called “Reagan Democrats,” a stratum largely consisting of blue-collar and lower-middle-class white refugees of the cities . . .

The Clinton campaign [in 1992] was, of course, the culmination of a decade-long battle by suburban and Southern Democrats to wrest control of the Democratic Party away from labor unions, big city mayors and civil rights groups . . .

. . . [T]here is no obvious reason why a campaign carefully designed to de-emphasize the cities should deliver a president suddenly fixed on their needs. In the aftermath of the Los Angeles rebellion, neither
Business Week nor the National Journal could locate a significant dividing line between the Clinton and Bush [Sr.] approaches to urban policy.
Along with the inexorable shift in political clout away from the cities to suburbs, cities have received less and less help from state and federal sources.

Just to take New York City as an example – in 1977, federal contributions constituted 19% of the city’s budget. In 1985, the federal contribution had fallen to 9%, and by fiscal 1997, it was apparently just under 5%. Combined with the dwindling tax base of most major urban areas due to the suburban flight of not only affluent individuals but healthy businesses, the result has been that many cities are finding it increasingly difficult to stay viable economically. Most often, the programs hardest hit by such budget cuts are subsidized housing, economic development assistance and job training, but infrastructure is a matter for increasing concern in most cities. As Tom Cox, deputy mayor of Pittsburgh, told me, just before Pittsburgh had to file for “distressed status” under Pennsylvania’s Municipalities Financial Recovery Act in 2003, “It isn’t as if we have fewer roads to maintain, or fewer feet of sewage line,” just because more people are leaving Pittsburgh for the suburbs and taking their votes and their tax dollars with them. (Myself included, admittedly.)

As the cable news cameras are making abundantly clear as they hover over New Orleans, inadequacies in our current method of funding infrastructure, housing and job creation in the nation’s cities are all issues that are inevitably swirled up by the tragedy of the breach of New Orleans’ levees.

[Please click the box to lend your support to Katrina victim relief.]

See also:

Mike Davis: Poor, Black, and Left Behind (September 24, 2004)

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