Solomon Greene is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. His research focuses on how land-use and housing policy can improve access to opportunity and how data and technology can support more inclusive urban development.
There’s a lot a new administration could do to help America’s cities, with or without Congress.
If voting patterns follow population trends, Tuesday’s election will be the most “urban” the United States has ever seen. More people live in America’s cities and metropolitan areas today than ever before. And for the first time since World War II, many U.S. cities are growing at the same rate or faster than their suburbs, which for decades absorbed most of the population growth in metropolitan areas.
The Great Recession caused younger families to delay (or avoid) purchasing homes in the suburbs, and demand for urban amenities has grown as both large employers and small startups have returned to central cities. Demographic changes in coming decades are likely to accelerate the growth of cities, as millennials, aging baby boomers and immigrants increasingly choose to live in urban neighborhoods.
At the same time that our cities are growing, income inequality is on the rise in the U.S., and this disparity is greatest in our largest cities. According to a Brookings Institution report from earlier this year, large metropolitan areas in the U.S.—as well as their central cities—tend to have greater income inequality than the nation as a whole. And the widening gap between rich and poor people within metropolitan areas coincides with a widening gap between rich and poor places. As colleagues at the Urban Institute recently demonstrated, the disparities between America’s most- and least-affluent neighborhoods within metropolitan areas have grown rapidly over the past two decades.
Income inequality has dominated national political discourse this year, taking center stage in the primary debates and party conventions (and to a lesser extent in the contentious general election presidential debates). Many observers, including President Obama, have declared that “combating rising inequality” is the most important challenge facing the next president. This should come as no surprise: after all, income inequality nationwide has surged to levels last seen before the Great Depression, and voters are feeling the squeeze.
But if inequality is greatest within cities and across metropolitan areas, why hasn’t either presidential candidate applied a distinctly “urban” lens to the challenges of this growing problem? And how can the president we elect on Tuesday harness demographic changes and economic shifts in cities to reverse this trend and help reduce inequality in these places?
The answer to the first question may be easier. At a political level, America’s city dwellers are overwhelmingly Democratic voters, so the Clinton campaign may take them for granted, while the Trump campaign may handily dismiss them. This would explain why Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier” plan to improve economic opportunity for poor communities and people of color doesn’t specifically earmark funds for cities. It would also explain Trump’s willingness to describe urban neighborhoods with high concentrations of Latinos and African Americans as a living “hell” and declare that "places like Afghanistan are safer than some U.S. inner cities.”
More pragmatically, many of the policy levers that could prove most effective at reducing economic inequalities in cities—such as housing, education, land use, transportation and economic development—are primarily (although not exclusively) controlled by state or local governments. Under our nation’s federalist political system, and in light of the powerful tradition of local control in many of these policy arenas, an aggressive “urban agenda” by a presidential candidate (or sitting president) could be seen as radical overreach.
But does this mean that our next president is bound to stand idly by as inequality continues to widen in our nation’s cities? Far from it. After all, many of the patterns of segregation and uneven development we see today were driven by decades of federal policies and (dis)investments, from racial redlining in credit markets to the siting of public housing developments and the funding of interstate highways. Of course, some federal solutions that would help unwind these barriers or affirmatively promote economic equality would require congressional action—a dubious proposition in the current political climate, regardless of who wins. But there is still plenty that the next president could do, early in the new administration, without legislation.
Here are three broad suggestions:
Break down silos. The effectiveness of existing federal investments in cities is hampered by entrenched divisions and communication gaps between the federal agencies that administer them. All too often one agency doesn’t know what investments another is making in a particular place. Programmatic priorities may conflict with each other, and grants often include onerous and inconsistent reporting requirements. The Obama administration made significant progress in breaking down these silos by incentivizing government agencies to adopt place-based approaches and by encouraging inter-agency coordination in the targeting of particular areas. But much more could be done. In this regard, the federal government can draw inspiration (and models) from local governments that are leveraging both new technologies and bold leadership to share data and create cross-functional teams that increase coordination and improve accountability across city agencies.
Incentivize inclusionary policies. The greatest tool at the federal government’s disposal is its money. Each year, the federal government distributes more than $600 billion, about 17 percent of its budget, to states and localities, providing about a quarter of their general revenues. Agencies could give cities that take certain qualifying steps to overcome economic inequalities a “leg up” for the share of these grants that are awarded competitively. HUD has experimented with this approach by awarding bonus points in discretionary grant applications to jurisdictions that participated in the Sustainable Communities Initiative and contributed to region-wide sustainability plans. Clinton’s Breaking Every Barrier proposal seems to take a similar approach by rewarding jurisdictions that “implement land-use strategies that make it easier to build affordable rental housing near good jobs” with competitive grants from the Department of Transportation. The impact of these incentives could be even greater if bonus points were coordinated and awarded across agencies.
Get ahead of the curve. Increasingly, local governments are developing predictive analytics with their own data and private sector “big data” to get ahead of the curve and prevent problems such as traffic collisions, homelessness, and public health hazards. Making public data more visible through open data portals has also unleashed the creativity of other civic-minded actors that have developed technology solutions to some of the most difficult challenges. The federal government has access to a wealth of data on cities. Federal agencies manage 8.4 billion records, and much of this data is or could be geocoded. More recently, the Obama administration launched the Opportunity Project, which made federal and local datasets available through open data agreements to support the development of tools that promote economic opportunity. The next administration could take this work several steps further by investing in the integration of data, from both within and outside the federal government, to make projections about stresses cities face that may drive inequalities, from property abandonment to gentrification pressures, and redeploy both financial and technical resources to help direct growth towards more inclusive outcomes.
Of course, there are also plenty of proposals out there that evidence suggests would go far in promoting economic opportunity and mobility in cities, but would require legislative action. For example, more funding for housing vouchers or major investments in our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. But these solutions would require significant pressure to break the political gridlock in Washington and a renewed federal commitment to robust and coordinated investments in America’s cities.
To generate such momentum, all cannot depend solely on urban voters, despite their growing numbers. Rather the case should be made that with two-thirds of the nation’s GDP being generated in cities, the economic future of our cities is also the economic future of our country. The United States will not succeed in becoming a more prosperous, equal and opportunity-rich nation if it fails to meet the needs of its cities.