The Equity Factor

Cities Push On Despite Shutdown, for Now

Credit: NPCA

The ongoing federal shutdown has had the largest direct impact so far on families in Washington, D.C., though its waves are being felt in government offices across the country. But cities and metropolitan regions are, for the most part, soldiering on as though lawmakers on Capitol Hill aren’t deadlocked in a partisan stand off.

Bruce Katz, co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution and vice president of the Brookings Institution, wrote yesterday about how metro regions are the real economic engines and at the forefront of policy issues, not Washington.

His co-author, Jennifer Bradley, agrees. “You don’t see this kind of political brinkmanship in cities,” she said, citing Detroit as a place that’s continued with development and construction despite, for example, crippling bankruptcy. “It shows that cities and metropolitan areas are innovating by force. They can’t be held hostage to these political games.”

As Katz wrote, scores of other cities across the country can function without the feds. They advance their own policies on their own timelines. Miami Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez, for one, is trying to broaden his city’s economic reach by meeting with business leaders from Cape Town, South Africa, while Palo Alto, Calif. is requiring houses to include electric car chargers in homes. The latter is an example of a financially stable region with more upper-middle-class residents, but it still shows the power local officials wield.

Despite their relative autonomy, many cities have residents who still rely on federal funds. (And no, we’re not talking about the Panda Cam or Grant’s Tomb.) Head Start programs across the country are closing doors because of the shutdown, which means 19,000 kids won’t get to attend the federal education service for preschool-age children.

“This affects your workforce,” Bradley said. “If Head Start’s not working, where are kids going while their parents are at work? In some places that has a more direct economic effect. Not just in D.C.”

But Bradley assured that cities should survive, at least for now. “I think for a while that metros will be able to continue to move forward,” she said, “but the federal government dysfunction is a millstone for metropolitan areas that are trying to keep things going, that are trying to sort of find their way and spur growth after the recession. It must be incredibly frustrating for mayors and business leaders to be looking at what’s going on and thinking, ‘You know, I make compromises every single day.’”

The biggest problem is the safety net. I wrote last month about House Republicans essentially going after food assistance for the working poor with a bill that would have made drastic cuts to SNAP. And while the shutdown won’t interrupt SNAP, it could put other safety nets on the line, such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Bradley is as big a champion of metro regions as they come, but she expressed reservations about the lack of a safety net for cities during a shutdown. “After a while I think you’ll start to see how cities and metropolitan areas need functioning, credible federal government so that they can go on and achieve the things they need to,” she said. “There are things that the federal government has to do so that metros can flourish.”

For now, U.S. cities — outside the capital, at least — seem to be ticking along just fine. (If not, please share your stories in the comments.) But it’s only a matter of time before the shutdown trickles down to every metro region across the country. Maybe everyone trying to deprive Americans of affordable health care will make some concessions before then.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley is based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The Daily, Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ.com and Vanity Fair, among others. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.

Tags: policy, d.c., equity factor, brookings institution, bruce katz, snap, jennifer bradley, safety net, metro revolution, wic