We’ve had a peanut farmer from Georgia and a self-proclaimed cowboy from Texas, but it has been some time since the United States has had a president who called a big city home. With the election of Sen. Barack Obama from Chicago last Tuesday, that streak has finally come to an end.
To no one’s surprise, President-elect Obama took 57 percent of the urban vote across America. He is a Democrat, after all. But even by party standards that is a pretty substantial share — 5.5 percent more than John Kerry took in 2004. With those kinds of numbers, it is worth asking what the new president should do to help the cities that helped him, especially in the current economy. And on a local level, it is worth thinking about what this will mean for New Haven.
Cities already have a brighter future simply because President Bush will be out of Washington in two months. Bush’s administration had no coherent urban policy, even if the president was correct about some of the budget cuts he made. His policy towards the urban poor is best summarized in the words of his one-time Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson: “I do not believe being poor is a condition; it is a state of mind.”
One of the major setbacks of Bush’s time in office was his reduction of the Community Development Block Grant, a fund that is widely praised by city mayors throughout the United States, including New Haven’s Mayor John DeStefano Jr. In fact, New Haven has been hit hard by the cuts — its entitlement from the program dropped from $5 million at the end of the Clinton administration to $3 million in fiscal year 2008. That’s $2 million less for New Haven to use to meet administrative costs and subsidize nonprofit groups.
One thing Obama guaranteed in his urban agenda (which, it is worth noting, is not currently posted on his presidential transition Web site) is that he would fully fund the grant. Based on his and Vice President-elect Biden’s records in the Senate, that should be true.
But being a “non-Bush” is not the only worthwhile advice. Aside from keeping the 1990s ideas of “making work pay” — broadening the Earned Income Tax Credit and increasing the minimum wage — he should try being a “non-Clinton,” too.
Obama’s statement before the United States Conference of Mayors that “[we] need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution,” is something that Bill Clinton, Harlem resident though he claims to be, might have balked at when it came time to draft policy.
But Obama has promised to create a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank to stimulate $60 billion of public projects over 10 years. And his plan to create a White House Office of Urban Policy to be a clearinghouse of the administration’s initiatives is still getting play in the national media after Election Day. Valerie Jarrett, a co-chair of the Obama-Biden Transition Team, emphasized the necessity of such a position in the current economy during a National Public Radio interview on Tuesday.
Alexander Garvin, adjunct professor at the School of Architecture and chief executive officer of his own urban planning firm, said Wednesday that New Haven has to be ready to embrace some of these new policies. And, as Garvin advised, the city need only look to its past to see how it’s done best.
“With the Housing Act of 1949 under Truman — one of the first major initiatives of urban policy — New Haven excelled,” Garvin said. “Mayor Lee made great use of the funds coming out of Washington, getting New Haven more money than any other city.”
In fact, it was a lot more. New Haven brought in $745 per capita, while Newark had the next highest income at $277.
Garvin said that New Haven today must have urban planners and architects in line to meet the cash as it starts flowing from the Obama administration. That’s what Lee did, helping him transform much of the city — development in Wooster Square, the Dixwell neighborhood and the area around Dwight Street happened with the backing of federal funds.
With a tight credit market, a steady flow of federal funds may be all New Haven can rely on. And when, or if, Obama comes through on his commitments to the country’s metropolitan regions, the Elm City will have no one to blame but itself if it cannot ensure a healthier future.
SamUEL breidbart is a sophomore in Branford College.