Wednesday Feb 21

EXCERPT FROM Saving Our Cities: A Progressive Plan to Transform Urban America By William W. Goldsmith: Cities May Save Us, But First We Have to Save Our Cities

The Occupy movement and its one-percenter logic did much more than to upset decorum with disruptions in New York and hundreds of other cities. The forceful arguments also challenged the standard way of ignoring vast extensions of inequality and the multiple social and economic damages that result. Those who wish to protect the status quo of privilege with poverty have been forced to turn to more
and more specious argumentation, turning, as Peter Marcuse says, “what should be wine into water.”19

Regarding food inequality, Congressman Paul Ryan, the 2012 vice presidential candidate appointed chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee for 2015, and subsequently elected Speaker of the House, asserted when he chaired the Budget Committee that the nation cannot afford its SNAP (food stamp) bills and that federal and state governments should stop encouraging participation in the program (which both the Bush and Obama administrations and many governors encouraged). He also argued, contrary to the data, that SNAP is a work disincentive and that waste, fraud, and abuse are rampant. Ryan proposed turning SNAP from an entitlement into block grants to states, to reduce benefits further.20 These selfish and (à la Brandeis) antidemocratic ideas leave those who are most vulnerable at the mercy of their poverty, their usually poor neighbors, and whatever charity they can find. These ideas are a throwback to less democratic times. They are being challenged in cities.

For centuries the ideas (and the practices) of citizenship and democracy, if they existed at all, were restricted to highly exclusive councils of landowning elites. Starting in the eighteenth century, many cities and nations began to consider broader ideas of citizenship, from time to time responding to pressure to include larger portions of the population in the franchise. The U.S. Constitution, in practice, gave the vote to property-owning adult white males. The franchise later grew, at least on paper, to include such groups as non–property owners, persons freed from slavery, women, and younger adults. In some cities in several other countries today, most adult residents, including noncitizens, can register and vote in local elections. But formal democracy has strict limits in the United States. In the U.S. presidential election of 2012, Barack Obama received only 27 percent of the potential vote. Mitt Romney received 25 percent. Nearly half of voting-age citizens, 48 percent, cast no vote at all.21 A cynic thinks that Congressman Ryan has carefully counted votes and is still gambling.

Fortunately, in the United States as elsewhere, ideas and practices of citizenship and informal democracy have spread beyond the act of voting to include a whole array of human and civil rights. Often these rights are instituted to protect individuals and groups, whether disadvantaged
majorities such as women or nationally oppressed populations, or even smaller classes of people, such as those who are physically disabled. Rights may protect against the imposition of majority preferences or privileges as well.

Along another dimension, beyond voting and civil rights, and beyond human rights, ideas and practices of citizenship and democracy have spread into the realm of the economy. Democracy seen in this broader sense has developed to require that public bodies take on more responsibility to deliver goods and services. Over the long term, wage earners have won recognition as well as various rights versus the private firms for which they work and also versus the state. Today in the United States one can legitimately demand, for example, that laws be invoked to protect workers against retribution during organizing drives for unions, and that the state set and enforce health and safety standards in workplaces, though these matters are hardly settled. The eight-hour day is a legislative reality in all industrially advanced democracies, at least for most jobs in the formal sec- tor, and often the workweek is set at fewer than forty hours, though this limit provides little help for those who must hold two or three jobs. Minimum wages are legislated nearly everywhere, even if their level is open to dispute and in the United States they do not yet guarantee a living wage.

During the years from the New Deal until the mid-1970s, these sorts of more inclusive ideas and practices dominated U.S. politics and powerfully influenced art, literature, and public discussion. People growing up in those generations came to consider it normal to expect and to win expanded rights of citizenship and ever more ample practices of democracy in politics, education, civil society, social life, and the economy. People did recognize the always provisional nature of gains, and they knew that even long-standing achievements were contested and could be rolled back. They knew improvements had been won only through political organizing, labor strife, and social movements, and that there would perhaps always be a long ways to go. But optimism was the proven rule, and people mostly thought that despite hard-to-bypass blockades and painful setbacks, they, their children, and their fellow citizens, including immigrants, would win progress.

That optimistic period lasted about four decades, and for the generations then emerging, those were formative years. As urban populations swelled throughout the twentieth century, even political representation, which at first almost ignored cities, finally moved toward fairness. Although the Senate deprives metropolitan areas (and populous states) of equal representation, after the Warren Court’s “one person, one vote” Reynolds rule in 1964, city (and suburban) voters had their say.

When the positive trajectory ended, sometime in the late 1970s, it took a while for the change to be clear. Was the new arrangement the real normal, a time when the odds stack up heavily against progress, a time when the rich get richer, when one percenters run things without so much trouble from the bottom 60 percent? Is the real normal a time when politics, social practices, and economics operate so as to maintain or exacerbate divisions by race, gender, and social background? Is it a time when presidential elections can be altered by five right-wing Supreme Court justices who them- selves decide how the vote will be counted? Is it a time when the Republic suffers as the empire grows? As Paul Krugman has suggested, it has been a time when the austerians rule.

Market societies generate inequality, so reformers need always to anticipate a series of struggles, against the odds but never futile, for social trans- formation and persistent stepwise gains. Our best hopes, I think, may be for an endless repetition of two steps forward, and one step back. Most of the forward steps will be taken in cities. Taken most likely after external damages are reduced.

Historical Optimism

Historical precedents help us see into the future. On the balance of forces that may help or hinder cities, neighborhoods, and residents to deal with austerity budgeting, schools, food, and drugs, I am optimistic. Although the problems are not new, and in many ways they have become worse over the past thirty years, and especially over the past decade, still there are grounds for optimism. There is much evidence of positive response— from those who resist, who want to improve their status and that of their neighborhoods, and also from those who manage parts of the system but are either sensitive to the plight of others or worry about the corrosive effects of inequality and exclusion on the system overall.

Perhaps a fitting conclusion is to point to the long tradition in American politics of progressive reform, even of the influence of ideas from socialism and social democracy. In a political world in which right-wing ideological manipulators have turned American liberalism into an epithet, it is strange to suggest that ideas from socialism will be useful. But in fact many of the things Americans like best about their country operate in
collective ways—good public schools, the National Parks, public water supplies, public libraries, municipal and state parks and recreation programs, even our streets and sidewalks. We collect taxes, and public authorities provide the services without fees or inexpensively. It works well, and, for the most part, we like it. These services, as well as socialized retirement benefits and socialized medicine for the elderly and the poor, were expanded quite dramatically through the twentieth century under presidential administrations that were (in limited ways) progressive— Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson.22

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, even during years mostly under conservative Republican leadership, these democratic, redistributive programs have once again expanded, many of them because of entitlements still tied to rising needs as the economy turned sour. Federal transfer payments to individuals and families have grown tremendously, to the point where for the average family, transfers amount to almost one-fifth of income. Between 2000 and 2009, after adjusting for the effect of inflation, the per capita federal transfer payment had risen by 69 percent. The largest chunks are for Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps. These programs, as well as special transfer programs to support children, soften the blow of unemployment, and they help veterans.The programs were created to fight poverty, and to a considerable extent, they do. More and more, however, they have shifted from helping the poorest, to supporting people struggling to stay in the middle class.

A study by the Congressional Budget Office shows that the poorest fifth of households, those in the lowest quintile, received just over one-third (36 percent) of transfer payments in 2007, way down from the more than half (54 percent) they received almost thirty years earlier, in 1979.23 A growing portion of benefits has been delivered to those who consider themselves as “self-sufficient members of the American middle class” and
who oppose public spending, who may even belong to the Tea Party, but whose declining economic status makes them needy and also makes them eligible. One such recipient is the owner of an apparel shop in the small city of Lindstrom, Minnesota, whose annual income is about $39,000, who “wants you to know that he does not need any help from the federal government” and who says “too many Americans lean on taxpayers rather than living within their means.” But for four years, and continuing, this middle-class shop owner himself received several thousand dollars of federal EITC payments, and he signed up his three younger children for free school breakfast and lunch programs, funded also by federal transfers. His mother, who is eighty-eight, twice relied on Medicare to pay for hip surgery.24

It is sometimes hard to believe today that these “collectivized” activities and various other elements of modern “social democracy” occur in the United States. Since the Reagan presidency, there has been almost deafening ideological noise from the austerian Right,25 screaming that government per se is evil and that—as Margaret Thatcher asserted—society does not exist. Perhaps because of the political constraints in this ideological climate, up to the 2014 midterm election President Obama operated as though he believed—in John Nichols’s words, “that everything public is inferior to everything private, that corporations are always good and unions always bad, that progressive taxation is inherently evil,” and that the economy should be set up so the wealthy gain and the rest get only trickle-down.26 After all, writes Nichols, the president who promised change later gave up on single-payer health care, saved the auto industry by funding GM and Chrysler but let them lay off thousands and relocate dozens of plants overseas, and left the Deep Horizon recovery in the Gulf of Mexico in the hands of “the corporation that had lied about the extent of the spill, had made decisions based on its bottom line rather than environmental and human needs, and had failed at even the most basic tasks.”27 There are better options, and they come from American history. Better options have been coming again recently from the nation’s cities. It is high time to reexamine these options and to provide the conditions in which cities can thrive.

We can start by making the improvements suggested here. They can be the first steps in a larger effort to bring about another era when cities and their inhabitants can once more prosper.

William W. Goldsmith is Professor Emeritus of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University. His book is available from Cornell University Press at


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