An agenda for forgotten cities

The midterm elections have deepened the political divisions between big, blue urban areas and red rural communities. The battlegrounds remain in and around smaller and mid-sized cities.  Yet, many of these places are struggling, unable to retain or attract the combination of talent and jobs that have fueled economic growth elsewhere.

Some of these places never recovered from the Great Recession, and others have experienced economic and population decline for more than a half-century. In Fall River, Massachusetts, the city reached its peak population in 1920 and has lost more than 30,000 residents since then. In Rockford, Illinois, unemployment is 80 percent higher than the national rate. In Youngstown, Ohio, nearly 40 percent of residents are living in poverty — and that was before the planned closing of the nearby Lordstown GM plant.

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Although popular as campaign stops, small and mid-sized cities from Waco to Wilkes Barre  often are forgotten in the public debate. Now that the elections are over, it’s time to face a tough reality — current federal policy doesn’t have a lot of good answers for these places or the people who live there.

There has been remarkably little innovation at the federal level in how to assist struggling cities and regions since the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Economic Development Administration (EDA) were created in the 1960s. New ideas progress little beyond promising pilots, and many wind up to be not very promising at all.

Some of the challenges facing these struggling cities are the same as they were 50 years ago, but many are new — as are the opportunities for turnaround. Yet federal policies, programs and partners remain stuck in the past.

To the extent that there is a federal urban policy, it tends to be one-size-fits-all. Imagine if there were an American foreign policy that treated every nation the same — no matter whether they are friend or foe, in Africa or in Asia. That would be folly. Yet, by and large, that’s exactly how Washington views cities — Miami, Florida, the same as Meridian, Mississippi.

Having worked with more than 50 economically challenged cities in the past five years, it is clear that turnaround has to start with local leadership. Struggling cities need to confront difficult truths that often involve being honest about racism and segregation in their community. Many need to address a history of corruption. And local governments need to build coalitions in support of turnaround — including business, higher education and local philanthropic organizations.

But, ultimately, they need the help and support of the federal government. In some cases, that may mean just providing more flexibility in how existing federal investments are spent. In other cases, it may mean getting out of the way — allowing local policy to take precedence over federal regulation. And in still other cases, it may mean new federal dollars.

As a start, the federal government needs to recognize that these cities matter. These small and mid-sized cities often are the heart of where economic stress, driven by change because of technology and globalization, plays out on a daily basis — where wages remain low and unemployment remains high. The result too often has been anger and resentment that bubbles up from years of despair.

There is not a long list of policy areas where bipartisanship is likely in the next two years. But given the political importance of these places, this should be one area where action is possible.  Washington can start by simply recognizing that these cities are essential to the nation’s economic future and there needs to be a federal response to what has been, in some cases, decades of decline. The response needs to be targeted to the individual challenges and opportunities of cities: the economic challenges and opportunities in Gary, Indiana, and Danville, Virginia, may be similar, but their paths forward must be unique.

These forgotten cities need to be more than just campaign stops. And the people who live there should not have to wait another 50 years.

David R. Eichenthal is a managing director with PFM Group Consulting and the executive director of the National Resource Network, a consortium of urban policy experts working to empower local leadership in economically challenged cities nationally.