Cities in Trouble On All Fronts


At busy Baltimore street corners -- adjacent to Oriole Park, for example, or on 29th Street at St. Paul -- watch for new indicators of decline in the political power of American cities.

The newest panhandling placards may say, "DALP Veteran, Please Help."

DALP stands for Disability Assistance and Loan Program, a $34 million public assistance fund that offered cash assistance to disabled Marylanders.

It officially went out of business yesterday. It wouldn't have happened in the heyday of urban political power. Because most of DALP's 16,000 recipients lived in Baltimore, the program would have survived any criticisms.

Now, its death stands as a symbol of the increasing dependency and political helplessness of cities. As power ebbs, problems grow.

Baltimore is now one of just five U.S. cities harboring half the nation's underclass. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit are the other cities, according to Isabel Sawhill of the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Of the remaining poor, about 80 percent live in 37 other cities. Each of these cities has large concentrations of female-headed families, dropouts, welfare recipients and jobless, working-age men. Though poor people are still found outside metropolitan areas, she said, the underclass is "disproportionately an urban phenomenon."

If a camera could capture the shift in populations over the last decade or so, it might show able-bodied, tax-paying residents sprinting for the county line. They're leaving behind the immobile poor, people who can't sell their houses and the rich.

No wonder, then, that state politics are increasingly dominated by suburbanites, some of whom resent the flow of state aid to the cities. Needy or not, the city is increasingly on its own.

In a recent Washington meeting with state and local job training officials, Ms. Sawhill said, representatives of the cities uniformly lamented Congress' decision to meld various entitlement programs into capped or block grants that will be sent to state governments for distribution.

"Governors are going to have much less money and they'll be under immense fiscal pressure, so it's pretty predictable that the constituencies with the greatest power won't have the greatest needs," Ms. Sawhill said.

Citing these very pressures, Gov. Parris N. Glendening closed DALP, setting aside Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's urgent appeals.

The program covered basic needs of about 20,000 adults, most of them Mr. Schmoke's constituents, giving each a monthly payment of $157. About half also received free medical care through DALP, at an annual cost of $13.5 million.

"We estimate there will be another 1,000 homeless people on the street daily," said Mr. Schmoke, who had spared the new governor a public campaign to win restoration of the benefits -- and who was still obliged to thank the governor for his willingness to consider Baltimore's case. Mr. Glendening's good offices will be needed again.

Huge Democratic turnouts in Baltimore were once a decisive factor in state elections. Baltimore still presents a formidable threat on Election Day, but the city and surrounding Baltimore County are now behind Montgomery and Prince George's counties as reservoirs of voters. As a result of population losses between 1980 and 1990, Baltimore has two fewer state senators, further weakening its once-dominant voting position in Annapolis.

The all-points assault on cities is not new, says Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor of education and social policy.

"In the 1960s, President Johnson's Great Society transferred money to cities, but we're in our third wave of cutting back on direct federal programs."

'Anti-minority sentiment'?

This pulling back has been driven in recent times by a "vicious anti-city, anti-minority sentiment," he added.

That sentiment has something like free rein in places where Democratic cities are arrayed against Republican suburbs and states with Republican governors.

Two of the largest cities in the nation, New York and Los Angeles, have Republican mayors. In New York, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani asked the state not to fund welfare programs, apparently in the hope that the poor would leave.

Cities also find themselves victimized even by actions designed to help their residents.

In Georgia, for example, the majority-black 11th congressional district draws voters from Augusta, Atlanta and Savannah. Georgia -- once dominated by white Democrats -- now has a congressional delegation made up of three black Democrats and eight white Republicans, whose constituencies are often unsympathetic to urban interests.

"These districts have helped create Gingrich-type politics, districts where you don't have to balance interests," Mr. Orfield said, referring to House Speaker Newt Gringrich, who represents a majority-white district in Atlanta's suburbs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that race cannot be the predominant factor when legislators draw lines for congressional and local districts -- a decision that invalidated Georgia's 11th District.

Baltimore must now rely on personalities, sympathetic players in key committee posts and relationships with others who have power. Yet, hope for Baltimore and other cities can result from new thinking about metropolitan areas and from a different redistricting approach.

When Maryland's election boundaries were redrawn in 1992, then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer decided to create senatorial districts that Baltimore County and the city would share.

Instead of losing two senators outright, the city would gain a share of new representation. Five new districts were created -- to the outrage of some county residents, many of whom feared they might be included in some tax-sharing scheme or that their children would be forced into the city's school system.

So far, the result has been much more positive: coalition building on some important local projects.

Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat whose district now reaches to Catonsville, worked with Del. Thomas E. Dewberry to find $1.5 million for construction of Red Run Boulevard in Owings Mills.

"Everybody had to be more responsive," Mr. Dewberry said.

Similar efforts to build communities of political interest are under way at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is discussing various approaches with the National Association of Counties.

Mr. Orfield's brother, Myron, a state representative in Minnesota, is working to build such a coalition in Minneapolis.

"He's got maps showing how we're subsidizing the rich suburbs," the professor said.

"There are much more common interests between older suburbs and central cities than anyone fully recognizes. But there's a level of leadership necessary to see the actual structure of the problem."

Politics sometimes pushes leadership to other decisions, he said.

A federal program called Moving to Opportunity was stopped with the help of Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Muikulski, who used her power as head of an appropriations subcommittee to cut off funding. Were the demands of an increasingly suburbanized electorate influential in the decision of this senator from Baltimore?

Defending MTO

Mr. Orfield says MTO actually worked well in Chicago.

"It's been done there since the middle 1970s. It worked well. There were large educational gains. Mothers were more likely to get jobs. And the cost was low."

Cooperative efforts will help, but the Brookings Institution's Margaret Weir says the underlying issues are more fundamental. In a recent article on regionalism, she wrote:

"Poor communities and cities cannot untangle the problems of economic decline and social breakdown on their own.

"Unless states use their substantial authority over land use, taxation and education to discourage urban flight, spread the financial burden of poverty more fairly throughout the state and prepare the next generation of urban workers for high skill jobs, the fiscal and social burden of cities will only worsen."

Mr. Dewberry says he still runs into constituents who "feel we're taking on the city problems." He tires to convince them that the problems have no boundaries.

That message is increasingly urgent for suburban voters to understand, Mr. Orfield said.

"They will follow the city's trajectory if they don't," he said.


* Half of the nation's underclass lives in just five cities: New York, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles -- and Baltimore. Some 37 cities, such as Springfield, Mass.; Flint, Mich.; Pueblo, Colo.; Buffalo, N.Y.; and Dayton, Ohio, are home to 80 percent of the remaining poor, according to the Urban Institute.

* In 1980, Baltimore was the most populous jurisdiction in Maryland, with more than 786,000 residents. Baltimore now ranks fourth in the state behind Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

* New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani asked the state not to fund welfare programs, apparently hoping that many poor people would leave.

* Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke estimates that the closing yesterday of the state's Disability Assistance and Loan Program will "put another 1,000 homeless people on the street daily." DALP provided benefits for about 20,000 disabled adults, many of them city residents.


C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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