Los Angeles 1992 to Baltimore 2015: Washington’s changed response to urban crisis

The recent unrest in Baltimore occurred almost 23 years to the day after the riots in Los Angeles set off by the beating of Rodney King. As many observers have pointed out, the factors that precipitated these events—concentrated poverty, high unemployment, abuse of police power—remain disturbingly the same. And like Baltimore (and Ferguson before it), the Los Angeles riots were treated as a “wake-up call” for the country. What has changed, however, is the nature and scope of the federal response.

The early 1990s was a period of unusual policy fermentation as congressional leaders and think tanks across the ideological spectrum generated specific proposals for alleviating inner-city poverty. The early 1990s was also a period of action as a Republican president and a Democratic Congress had the courage to reach across the aisle, compromise on disparate solutions, and enact substantive legislation. Today, with the possible exception of criminal justice reform, Washington suffers from both a paucity of ideas and an atrophying of the legislative will to give and take.

I was staff director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee for Housing and Urban Affairs when the Los Angeles disturbances took place, and I had a ringside seat to the deliberations within the Senate and then between the White House, key federal agencies, and Congress more broadly. My boss was California Senator Alan Cranston, so the events in Los Angeles had a special import.

I distinctly remember one session called by Senator Cranston and Senator Don Riegle (then chairman of the Senate Banking Committee). Several senior Democratic senators including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd, and Paul Sarbanes were riveted by Senator Harris Wofford’s depiction of events on the ground (Senator Wofford was in Los Angeles when the riots broke out) and then responded one-by-one with their specific recommendations on how to proceed.

The response at the federal level did not end with meetings among senators or pronouncements by presidential candidates. Rather, a Republican president quickly proposed (and a Democratic Congress quickly enacted) emergency aid legislation to help affected small businesses. The administration and Congress then engaged in a series of negotiations over a broader urban package. Ultimately, a series of initiatives were enacted in 1992 and 1993 that, among other things, dedicated substantial resources for public housing transformation, inner-city empowerment zones, housing mobility vouchers, community development banking, lead-based paint removal, and youth employment initiatives.

These were not small measures. The public housing transformation that began in 1992 ultimately led to the demolition of tens of thousands of public housing units and the redevelopment of these failed projects into mixed-income communities. A recent study by Harvard Professor Raj Chetty finds that the Moving to Opportunity initiative (where residents of high-poverty neighborhoods were given rental vouchers and other assistance in moving to areas of low poverty) “significantly improves college attendance rates and earnings for children who were young (below age 13) when their families moved.”

Part of the differences in response between 1992 and 2015 can be attributed, no doubt, to the fact that the Los Angeles riots persisted for days and resulted in dozens killed, thousands injured, and about $1 billion in property damage; in Baltimore dozens were injured and early property damage estimates register at $9 million (though that is only part of the total economic impact). In addition, 1992 was a presidential election year and the incumbent, George H.W. Bush, was intent on showing his responsiveness to a widely recognized crisis. From my vantage point, however, there are other more structural differences, and they show how Washington has lost its ability to govern in the face of partisan polarization.

First, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw bursts of intense interest across both parties in addressing the challenges of concentrated inner-city poverty. In 1987, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson published the highly influential book The Truly Disadvantaged, in which he argued that the loss of employment opportunities in inner-city neighborhoods had led primarily African American residents to be “more socially and economically isolated than before the great civil rights victories.” Wilson’s research was brought to ground by two searing popular indictments of failed public housing: Nic Lemann’s The Promised Land and Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here. In response, the Democratic-led Senate Banking Committee held hearings, commissioned reports, and proposed concrete ways to demolish failed public housing projects and replace them with economically integrated developments. Republicans, like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, offered programs to empower low-income residents through the purchase of public housing and the expansion of rental vouchers.

Today, sadly, the issue of concentrated urban (and increasingly suburban) poverty does not receive the consistent, creative focus of either party. Beyond a few notable examples—my most recent favorite of which is the collaboration between the liberal Jared Bernstein and the conservative Kevin Hassett to suggest a new economic model for investing in distressed cities—there are few national urban poverty proposals, never mind cross-party collaborations. Poverty and the inner city are rarely spoken of in presidential campaigns (“middle class” has until lately been the more politically savvy alternative), and any Democratic or Republican proposals on the matter might as well be voiced in different languages for the amount of political traction they receive.

Second, in the early 1990s leaders from the two political parties did not just develop concrete ideas; they debated and ultimately compromised, giving each side part of what it sought. HUD Secretary Kemp, when faced with congressional proposals to tear down and replace the most dilapidated public housing projects, famously said he did not want to be remembered as the “Secretary of Demolition.” Many congressional Democrats, for their part, were initially lukewarm toward Kemp’s ideas to give vouchers to residents of public housing so that they could move to neighborhoods of low poverty. In the end, however, Kemp accepted the Democratic proposal and the Democrats accepted his and both approaches were authorized in the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. This is the way Congress used to work. 

Finally, the response to the Los Angeles riots followed years of routine congressional action on major housing, transportation, and urban legislation. The legislative machinery was well oiled from constant use and capable of responding with agility and intelligence to crises as they arose. Members assumed that the job of a legislature was to legislate. Today, Congress can barely pass basic legislation and, when it does (as it did recently with the two-month extension of the highway act), does so without the predictability and reliability that allow state and local governments to sign contracts and private-sector firms to do their jobs. Blame partisan gridlock, which has stymied the continuous improvement of federal policies and programs via routinely enacted appropriation and authorization bills. Blame also the end of earmarks, which, despite their damaged reputation, enabled members of Congress to respond to stated requests within their districts and states.

Whatever the cause of Washington dysfunction, the message to places like Baltimore and Ferguson that face some of the toughest, structural challenges in the nation is clear. You are on your own. The cavalry is not coming.