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An Urban Policy by Any Other Name


Atlanta -- Empowerment zones, crime and gun control, homeless initiatives, tax credits for the working poor -- are they adding up to something? Does the Clinton administration have a set of pro-city policies which, by any other name, would be known as a national urban policy?

Henry Cisneros, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, claims it's so. The comprehensive set of urban initiatives that city leaders have long sought is finally taking shape, he argues.

On the law-and-order front, Mr. Cisneros himself took part in a drug raid recently in a Boston public housing project. And months before a homeless woman died in a bus shelter outside HUD's Washington headquarters, Cisneros & Co. were pressing for dramatic increases in homeless aid.

But the secretary claims there's a lot more behind those headline issues of the moment. In a speech here to the National Civic League -- the group he'd headed before becoming HUD secretary -- Mr. Cisneros laid out a list of legislative initiatives and organizational moves.

His list began with congressional passage, at President Clinton's behest, of expanded earned-income tax credits to give the nation's working poor a better shot at a decent standard of living.

Next came the permanent extension of mortgage revenue-bond

authority for state and local governments, which Secretary Cisneros predicts will create tens of thousands of units of affordable housing. The administration advocates, he notes, close to $400 million for credit unions and development banks that work in and for poor neighborhoods. It's toughened up enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act, to open mortgage lending for low-income and minority people. It's asking for full funding for Head Start, for immunization for children.

A less noted benefit of health-care reform for metropolitan areas, Mr. Cisneros asserts, is that a vast majority of the 37 million Americans without health care insurance are urban residents.

And then there's President Clinton's program of "empowerment zones" and "enterprise communities," which are to be designated by late spring. Few people, according to the HUD secretary, realize the significance of the Community Empowerment Board announced in September as part of the National Policy Review for "reinvention" of the federal government.

The Empowerment Board is scheduled not only to select empowerment zones and enterprise communities, but to bring some cohesion to efforts of the federal departments -- from HUD to Labor to Education to Transportation to Justice -- that serve urban communities.

And if Congress approves, the board will experiment with lifting mandates and rules so that local communities can combine federal aid streams into their own creative programs.

The chair of the Empowerment Board is a man assigned so many roles one would think he had no time -- Vice President Gore. But Mr. Cisneros says the veep has quietly been taking out a morning a week for briefings on the depth of urban problems facing the nation.

What's more, the co-chairs of the board under Mr. Gore are Robert Rubin, chair of the National Economic Council, and Carol Rasco, chair of the Domestic Policy Council. It is the first time an administration's chief economic policy adviser has ever worked directly with the top domestic policy counselor responsible for such heavily urban issues as welfare reform.

Does all that measure up to the Johnsonian "war on poverty" of the '60s, or President Carter's more modest "urban policy" initiative of the '70s? Maybe. In some ways, it seems more attuned to real grass-roots issues, and leaping over bureaucratic hurdles.

But there are a couple of real problems.

The first is that as much as Henry Cisneros talks about cities, President Clinton rarely breathes the word. Maybe that's because the president comes from a rural state.

More likely, it's because his political instincts suggest that in a suburban nation, there's no payoff in talking about cities or using the word "urban."

But in reality, many of the answers to poverty, homelessness, crime and credit shortages will have to be forged in the "real" cities of the 1990s -- the metropolitan regions, or citistates, where the vast majority of Americans live.

Check the vital signs of our citistates' lives -- work-force preparedness, school quality, air quality and the threatening dilemmas posed by guns and gangs and crime -- and it's obvious the problems are creeping out through once-inviolate suburbs to the metropolitan fringes.

Yet the same regions are central producers of the nation's wealth. They represent 80 percent of the nation's population -- and future. Their bitter divisions -- of race, income, class -- are America's Achilles heel. If our great regions falter, the nation fails.

As Secretary Cisneros puts it: "Interwoven destinies tie the fate of the inner cities to their entire metropolitan areas. . . . Upon the shoulder of these citistates rests the future of our nation's competitiveness in the global economic marketplace."

It would seem the HUD secretary "gets it." Only time will tell if the president does too.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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