Liberalism's Urban Legacy

At the end of World War II, Washington, D.C.'s population was 900,000. Today, its population stands at 528,000 and declining. Just during the 1990s, the city has lost 78,000 residents. But Washington isn't alone in population loss. Steven Hayward's article "Broken Cities: Liberalism's Urban Legacy," in the March/April, 1998 issue of Policy Review shows that 10 of America's 25 largest cities have significant population losses including Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and, of course, Detroit. Atlanta, for example, has seen its population decline by 19 percent since the 60s and its suburban population rise by 386 percent.

Back in the 60s and 70s, liberals blamed the exodus on racism, namely "white flight" to the suburbs. Since the 70s, blacks have been fleeing cities at a faster rate than whites. For example, Washington, D.C., has 140,000 fewer black residents now than it had in 1970. The black populations of Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis have also fallen. As one would suspect, blacks want better and safer schools for their kids and don't like to be mugged and have their property vandalized any more than white people. And just like white people, they too can't wait for Bekins to move them out.

Driving the city exodus is a process that I call accumulative decay. When schools are rotten, streets are unsafe and dirty, and the city services decline, the first people to leave are those who care the most about neighborhood amenities and have resources to move on to greener pastures. In a word, the city loses its most able people first. They tend to be replaced by people who don't care as much and/or who don't have the resources to get out. Because the best people, those who put more into the city's coffer than they take out in services, are gone, politicians raise taxes and/or city services deteriorate. That sets up the conditions for the next round of people to leave. Businesses, that depend on these people either as employees or customers also leave. Eighty percent of all new jobs are created in the suburbs and the amount of suburban office space is a third higher than downtown office space. The typical political response to a declining tax base is to raise taxes even more and hence create incentives for more businesses and residents to leave.

A smart mayor could reverse this trend by paying more attention to efficiency rather than equity. Regardless of any other goal, a mayor's first order of business is to retain what economists call net positive fiscal residua, a fancy term for keeping those people in the city who put more into the city's coffers than they take out in services. That might require discrimination in the delivery of city services such as better lighting, greater safety, nicer libraries and better schools in wealthier neighborhoods. Since many middle-class people leave because of school quality, another measure would be for mayors to support school vouchers. That way parents who stayed wouldn't be faced with paying twice in order for their kids to get a good education - through property taxes and private school tuition. Some might protest that city service discrimination is unfair. I might agree but it's even more unfair for cities, once the magnets of opportunities for low-income people, to become economic wastelands.

Big cities can be revitalized but it's going to take mayors with guts to do what's necessary to reverse accumulative decay, including insuring safe streets and cracking down on petty crimes and misdemeanors such as public urination, graffiti, vandalism, loitering and panhandling.

Walter E. Williams


March 17, 1998