We Need Washington: Some of North Texas’ Problems Are Too Big To Go It Alone

Bruce Katz and
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University
Don Williams

February 24, 2008

Texans pride themselves on rugged independence, especially when it comes to interference from Washington. In crucial ways, however, Dallas-Fort Worth – this metropolitan miracle on the blackland prairie – is a creature of decisions made in Washington four, five or even six decades ago.

The region’s single most powerful economic engine, D/FW International Airport, is the offspring of a shotgun wedding between its two feuding core cities, with the Federal Aviation Administration holding the shotgun.The information technology and aerospace industries that generate a major share of the region’s high-paying jobs owe their existence to federal investments during World War II and in the decades since.

The low-density, suburban style of development that defines Texans’ vision of the American dream emerged under the dual stimulus of federal highway construction and federal mortgage insurance programs that favor single-family, detached homes. Those and other seeds of prosperity, sown so long ago, have flowered spectacularly in Dallas-Fort Worth and scores of other metropolitan regions from coast to coast.

Despite occupying just 12 percent of U.S. land mass, the nation’s 100 largest metro areas account for 65 percent of its people and 75 percent of its economic output. They hold the keys to America’s future prosperity, generating 78 percent of the nation’s new patents, 81 percent of jobs devoted to research and development and 94 percent of venture capital funding. They also face challenges that threaten not only their own viability but the nation’s as a whole: underperforming school systems, pockets of concentrated poverty that dissipate economic activity, outmoded infrastructure, climate change and other environmental ills.

Not even the largest, most robust metro areas can conquer such challenges alone, yet today the federal government is conspicuously missing in action – wedded to narrow, antiquated programs as likely to exacerbate the problems as to solve them. Sadly, the presidential candidates, too, seem oblivious to the importance of metro areas and their urgent needs. To take one case in point, North Texas is one of many areas where an increasing number of working families find that the cost of decent housing is beyond their means. That is not just a social justice problem – although it is certainly that. It is also an economic problem. If workers cannot afford to live where the jobs are, the economy will not function efficiently.

Yet did either Congress or the executive branch seek to boost the income of struggling workers through vehicles such as the earned income tax credit? Not since the big lift of 1993. Did they raise the minimum wage? Until very recently, no. Did they revamp policies that encourage suburban sprawl and transportation costs that consume an ever greater share of families’ budgets? No.

In essence, Washington’s housing policy was to turn a blind eye while reckless lenders enticed millions of people into risky mortgages. The inevitable crash has not only robbed tens of thousands of Americans of their homes, destabilized neighborhoods and hurt local tax bases. It threatens to send the national economy into a recession.

Washington has already responded to the crisis with a short-term fix. But we need to be thinking long term about the fundamental drivers of American prosperity.

The next several months are a precious window of opportunity in which Americans can engage the presidential hopefuls in a rigorous discussion of what the federal government must do to support metropolitan vitality. The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings is helping spur those conversations through its Blueprint for American Prosperity, which suggests that above all, the federal role is to help metro areas enhance the four things that already make them so productive:

  • Innovation, translating new ideas into new products and new markets;
  • Human capital, sustaining a highly competent workforce in which no worker is left behind;
  • Infrastructure, moving people, goods and information with optimum efficiency;
  • Quality places, where growth occurs in sustainable ways.

It’s tempting, after years of missing or misguided federal actions, to ask: Who needs Washington? Brookings is asking a much more provocative question: What if Washington got smart?