Published on Monday, December 8, 2003 by the Seattle Times
D.C.'s Red Ink Stains Nation's Towns, Cities
by Neal Peirce
WASHINGTON — John DeStefano, five-term mayor of New Haven, Conn., and president of the National League of Cities, gave a hopelessly sentimental speech at the National Press Club last week.
DeStefano argued that America's towns and cities, the places where we grew up and went to school, attended church, married and raised children, and buried our parents, are really the heart of the country.
What's more, he suggested, the investments our local governments have made over the centuries — in schools and libraries and parks, in police and fire protection, in housing and public health and more — helped make us the very special nation we became. Supportive communities gave hundreds of millions of working-class families the opportunity to improve their lot, generation to generation, becoming members of America's strong middle class.
"Cities and towns are not the children, nor are we the creatures, of America. If anything we're the creators," said DeStefano, noting that his own city was already 138 years old when one of his predecessors as mayor, Roger Sherman, risked life and fortune to sign the Declaration of Independence.
It's an outrage, DeStefano argued, when officials of the federal government — which "reaps the benefit of revenues and wealth created at the local level" — actually denigrate local efforts and dismiss Washington's limited assistance, for school and crime or housing projects, as some kind of "handout."
In the hardball world of national politics, such hometown pleas are considered a touch quaint. Doesn't DeStefano recognize there are larger interests to be appeased? Like the wealthiest taxpayers with their inordinate share of the $1.7 trillion tax cuts Congress approved for a decade? Or agriculture interests, whose cotton and peanut and dairy and mohair subsidies boosted last year's farm bill to a six-year cost of $248 billion?
Then there's the new $400 billion Medicare prescription drug bill, which not only fails to open big drug firms to foreign competition but doles out $125 billion over the next decade in subsidies to the health-care industry and U.S. businesses.
And wait — the energy bill may have been stalled in Congress until early next year. But congressional leaders are still hot to pass it, with its $23.5 billion in tax breaks, largely for oil and gas producers.
And of course there's the war in Iraq, a conflict on which Americans remain deeply divided. If the $121 billion that Congress has so far appropriated for Iraq were available to America's cities, the proportionate share for DeStefano's New Haven would be $66 million available to cover recession-triggered deficits, to finance schools, health services, transit and the new burdens added by homeland security needs.
Using the same formula (calculated by the National Priorities Council), Seattle would have $360 million, Cleveland $141 million, Phoenix $532 million, Detroit $271 million, St. Paul $150 million.
"Just waste!" — some would cry. But really? What if we could use the money to stimulate local investment in families, offsetting the doubling of poverty in young families that has occurred since the early 1970s? Or to fund all, rather than a fraction of, childhood programs — a more likely booster of school performance than "No Child Left Behind" or any other unfunded federal mandate?
Or what if we could expand the Hope VI housing program, a sparkling success in turning ravaged public housing projects into stable new mixed-income communities — and not deep-six it, as the Bush administration advocates?
In short, what if we used our treasure to support our cities and towns, to undergird and expand our middle class for a brighter shared future?
That DeStefano's dream. But it's surely not the dream of official Washington, obsessed as it seems with tax cuts, war and corporate subsidy. Instead, Washington is cutting aid to cities even while it plunges the nation into deep seas of red ink — prospective deficits of a half-trillion dollars or so a year for the rest of this decade.
"It's rather bizarre," says DeStefano, "that the federal government is not satisfied with driving itself into deficit, they've got to drive us into deficit too."
And it's not just cities and towns that are imperiled by federal fiscal policy. The very middle class that DeStefano celebrates will be deeply imperiled. As Concord Coalition chairman Warren Rudman warns, a continuing plunge into debt, the need to pay off our massive commitments to creditors foreign or domestic, will lead — if it's not corrected in time — to devaluation of our currency, massive tax increases and collapsing retirement accounts.
It makes one wonder how a nation built on the basic values of fiscal responsibility and careful government investments to build a strong middle class could wander so far astray.
Maybe John DeStefano's suggestion that we focus first on basics, on America's cities and towns and hometown people and their needs and opportunities, isn't so quaint after all.
Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company