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Shortchanging Cities

Ilana Novick

As a politician who cut his teeth on the South Side of Chicago, Barack Obama was positioned to become the first urban president in decades, even since Teddy Roosevelt.

His stimulus plan promised billions of dollars for infrastructure projects, including public transportation and multi-family housing, which are particularly beneficial to cities. Obama even went as far as establishing an Office of Urban Affairs, and tapping former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion to lead it. 

So how have things turned out for cities over the past few years?

On the plus side, the auto bailout helped the economies of cities in Michigan and Ohio by saving manufacturing jobs. And TARP was hugely helpful to cities with big financial sectors, like New York and Boston.  

Otherwise, though, cities haven't gotten nearly the help they deserve. America is actually more urban than ever. Four-fifths of the population lives in an urban area — the highest percentage in our history. Despite this, cities -- which, by the way, have some of the nation's high unemployment rates -- have not been a major focal point of stimulus funding. For example, New York City has 40% of the state's population, but received a third of stimulus funds, and just 15% of its stimulus created jobs.  

Meanwhile, many stimulus funds meant for cities were never spent because state governors spurned such assistance. Two different transportation projects -- one a high-speed rail line from Madison to Milwakee, the other from Orlando to Tampa -- were loudly rejected by the Florida and Wisconsin governors

The very idea of spending on mass transit and other urban projects has been mocked by the Republican Party. Politicians at the GOP convention claimed that Obama aimed to replace "civil engineering with social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit."

Though even a Republican as staunch as Peggy Noonan devoted a Wall Street Journal column to the need for Republicans to appeal to cities, her plea will likely not be heard over the donations from companies more likely to benefit from highways than from subways, and single family houses rather apartments.

The auto industry bailout and TARP funds were able to strengthen the overall economies of cities from Detroit to New York. More tangible results, however, in the forms of jobs, housing, and infrastructure have turned out to be considerably smaller than promised. 

And that new White House Office of Urban Affairs? According to many officials it is largely symbolic. Sometimes the White House switchboard operators can't even locate it.