Tense Commandments: Federal Prescriptions and City Problems

Pietro S. Nivola
Pietro Nivola
Pietro S. Nivola Former Brookings Expert

August 1, 2001


Each year the United States government publishes a report called The State of the Cities. The final year of the 20th Century was a very good one. Thanks to “the Clinton-Gore economic policies and effective empowerment agenda,” the-end-of-the millennium edition proclaimed, “most cities are showing clear signs of revitalization and renewal.”

Yet, the authors conceded, even in these times of great prosperity, the nation’s central cities still faced “challenges.”
Challenges? During the last decade, dozens of large cities—including such major centers as Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C.—continued to shed inhabitants. Sprawling suburban subdivisions still accounted for more than three-quarters of all new metropolitan growth. Although many other cities finally managed to regain population in the 1990s, few kept pace with the growth of their suburbs.

Differences in employment growth between the metropolitan core and its outlying communities remained huge as well. Suburbs continued to capture the bulk of new jobs. One study of 92 metropolitan areas found that, though 56 percent of their central cities began netting some increase in private sector jobs between 1993 and 1996, 25 percent did not—and fully 82 percent of all the cities continued to record a declining share of private employment in relation to the rest of their respective regions.

In absolute terms, the enclaves of poverty left behind in central cities by the dispersal of people and jobs to distant peripheries shrank in recent years.

This was no small accomplishment, but it scarcely changed the fact that poor people remained a large percentage of the resident populations of many cities. At long last the strain of sustaining these dependents has diminished almost everywhere, including urban counties where dependency declined by more than 40 percent between 1994 and 1999.

But it is no less true that cities still are typically the locus of the heaviest caseloads in comparison with surrounding communities. Philadelphia County has 12 percent of Pennsylvania’s people, but 47 percent of all Pennsylvanians on welfare. Baltimore accounted for 58 percent of Maryland’s welfare cases. Nearly two-thirds of all welfare recipients in the Washington metropolitan area were clustered inside the District of Columbia.

At long last, the depopulation, impoverishment and decay of much of urban America has abated. Whether the decline has been durably halted, let alone lastingly reversed, is another matter. If the national economy soon does not resume a robust rate of growth, the apparent revival of U.S. cities will be set back. In any event, when choosing where to live and work, far more Americans today still locate outside old cities than inside them. If anything, save for anomalies like New York, the margin of disparity generally continues to widen, not narrow.

Most of the underlying causes of this country’s urban predicament have long been familiar. Among them are disproportionate poverty—hence crime and blight—in the inner cities, some lingering barriers to racial assimilation in suburbs, a cultural preference for the suburban way of life, stiff city tax rates heightened by the costs of supporting large unionized bureaucracies, the unsatisfactory public services they deliver, and so on.

Less recognized is the distinct possibility that certain policies fashioned, but not adequately funded, by the federal government—particularly the manifold rules and rulings its lawmakers, bureaucrats, and judges impose—have also disadvantaged many cities, complicating their ability to attract residents and businesses.

Of late, the weight of this “mandate millstone” (as a mayor of New York called it years ago) appears to have lifted somewhat, thanks in part to a spell of self-restraint by policymakers in Washington, but also because municipal economies mostly fared better in recent years than in earlier decades, enabling local governments to shoulder more of the burden.

Whether the relief has been substantial enough to suffice for the years to come—and whether more of it would have left the cities in an even stronger position today—remain open questions.

The following paper begins with a general glance at trends in both the revenues and the regulations that the national government directs at cities. Next, the paper delineates why some of the recent cost-shifting under centralized standards makes sense, but also how a good deal of it has exceeded legitimate bounds. In two subsequent sections, the essay provides accounts of federally mandated activities that have encumbered municipal governments in realms such as labor relations, environmental management, disabilities policy, and school administration. The paper then offers explanations for the encumbrances. The concluding pages assess the extent and likely implications of recent federal regulatory retrenchment.