One of my colleagues just posted yesterday about federal subsidies for cities that are failing. He questions why the federal government props up cities that have been in a population decline and lists which cities made the “Most populated cities” list in 1950 and then again in 2013. Detroit, Cleveland and Washington D.C. among others no longer make the top 15. He studies cities and, in particular, the changing demographics of cities over time, so his work on this subject is very interesting.
In particular, he makes a great point about cities not having a right to be large and prosperous:
“Cities like Cleveland and St. Louis used to be relatively large and well off while cities like Columbus, OH and Austin, TX were small and relatively poorer. Today that is flipped, but that does not mean that the federal government should attempt to put things back the way they were; no city has a right to be large and prosperous.”
This sounds correct, but in reality I am not so sure that cities, or the people who live in them, believe they have a right to grow and create wealth. As mentioned in his blog, cities rise and fall for numerous reasons such as businesses leave for a cheaper location, better parks and recreation, better hospitals, tax structures of local governments and zoning policies. So, is it not that cities lobby for federal financial assistance to overhaul tax structures, fix ill-maintained parks and create better hospitals and then are awarded federal dollars? Or is it that they are envious of prosperous cities like New York and they feel like they have a right to be like NYC without actually moving its entire population to New York? I would think that it would be the former, although, additional dollars for failing cities rarely helps fix tax structures, bad government or parks. An alternative option would be that the government is worried about socio-economic implications with a declining population since the rich are more mobile, while poorer members of society do not have the means to relocate to find a better job, better neighborhood or school for their kids. However, if the government set up performance-based federal money, I think the decision to give more federal dollars to some cities would change.
The federal government has been handing money to one declining city, Detroit, since the 1960s by means of more subsidies and propping up their large automobile industry. Forty years later, Detroit still has issues, while they continue to receive government money. If the federal government believed that population trends are any indication for future growth there should be no reason for an increase in federal dollars. People talk by ways of their feet and the government should listen.