The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has launched a “Stand with Detroit” campaign this month to rally support for the city, which was driven to declare bankruptcy last month. But this is not just a campaign on behalf of a single troubled city and its workers. It is about standing up to the conservative bullies in Congress and the states who have launched a sustained attack against cities and the programs that support their economic vitality.
In Washington, that attack has been led by conservative and tea-party House Republicans, who tried last month to force through deep cuts in programs that help cities fund economic development and job-creation programs. Their attempt to get those cuts enshrined in an appropriation bill for the Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments famously imploded. But the majority of House Republicans made themselves clear: They supported putting cities on a starvation diet, with people at the bottom of the economic ladder feeling the hunger pangs.
Detroit was also under assault from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-dominated state legislature. AFSCME notes that “Snyder slashed the city’s share of state revenues by $66 million from 2011 to 2012. In total, state aid to Detroit has been cut by $160 million since 2002.” At the same time, the union notes, the owner of the Detroit Red Wings received $444 million in state support for a new hockey arena.
But it’s not just Michigan. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, has led an assault against state aid to cities that has had a devastating impact on Philadelphia, particularly its schools. In North Carolina, Republicans made broad cuts in programs ranging from education to public safety, with effects ranging from layoffs of school employees to cuts in programs designed to keep young people out of prison.
The appropriations bill that Republican leaders were forced to pull from the House floor included significant reductions in aid to housing and transportation programs, and would have cut almost in half the Community Development Block Grant program, from $3 billion to $1.6 billion. The CDBG program is a key source of funding for a broad range of economic development projects that revive struggling communities.
A parallel appropriations bill in the Senate would have authorized modest increase in housing subsidy programs and would have maintained CDBG funding. The Senate bill had the bipartisan support of the National League of Cities. But Senate Republicans filibustered it. And with Congress now on recess and with only none legislative days to resolve the standoff, the fate of these programs is not at all clear.
What is clear is that, as author Kevin Baker wrote in The New York Times a few months ago, that “the Republican Party is, more than ever before in its history, an anti-urban party.” It is not surprising: Cities are not just bastions of Democratic electoral strength. They are usually exemplars of progressive governance, where people have sided by overwhelming numbers against the notion that government has no role other than to help the rich further enrich themselves and to rein in the poor. They have led us in showing how we can be a nation of inclusion, and that ensuring dignity and equality for all people regardless of their race, gender, national origin or sexual orientation does not make the sky fall; it enriches us.
At their best, cities demonstrate how government can be a positive force in ensuring that prosperity is shared, that economic growth does not have to leave people behind. That is why conservatives believe progressive governance of cities must be starved. It cannot be allowed to work, and thus make a mockery of their desire that government be largely dismantled and its functions turned into profit centers for private interests.
The reason to stand with Detroit is to stand with the progressive value that millions of financially struggling people need a hand up, and programs like the Community Development Block Grant programs provide some of the best mechanisms for providing that hand up. It is to stand with the value that governments – federal, state and local – should work for all of the people and support the aspirations of all of its people. When governments push middle-class and low-income people aside while handing out tax breaks and subsidies to the uber-rich, that’s both economically destructive and morally offensive.
President Obama and progressive allies in Congress could help call attention to the plight of cities and the conservative attack against them by adopting AFSCME’s recommendation for “an Urban Crisis Task Force.” The set of forces that led to Detroit’s bankruptcy “threatens urban centers across the country.” The task force “must be invested with responsibility for and ability to execute workable solutions to the economic problems of severely struggling American cities.”
Progressive activists should also use our collective voices to form our own “urban crisis task force” and truth squad, calling out the conservative attacks on our cities and their people. The economic fortunes and political power of hundreds of millions of people hang in the balance.