URBAN NATION: Policies Outlined in the SOTU Could Really Benefit Cities

Last night’s State of the Union address didn’t mention cities or metros by name. But it was still chock full of policy initiatives that could have tangible benefits in urban areas across the country. Here we take a look at four of the less obvious ones.

President Obama speaking on Tuesday night.

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President Obama, like many presidents before him, has never been big on cheerleading the cause of cities. The White House Office of Urban Affairs, once heralded as the face that city issues needed in Washington, slowly receded from view during his first term. Last night’s State of the Union address, like those of previous years, mostly stuck to the TV-friendly and politically banal language of “regions” rather than striking a more daring tone by mentioning cities and metro areas by name.

But for all the absence of city boosterism — that vague “champion in the White House” fluff so popular among urbanists — the president’s speech was chock full of policy initiatives that really could benefit cities and metros. Some of these, particularly Fix It First and creating manufacturing hubs, are taken directly from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy program, which deserves a lot of credit for adapting their message to the administration’s needs. But several of the president’s other, less obviously “urban” proposals could also have a big impact in cities.

Let’s take a look at four of these:

  • Tonight, let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour.

Even with the boost to the minimum wage proposed by the president, $9 an hour (for 40 hours a week and 52 weeks a year) still puts a worker in a household of three below the poverty line of $19,090. And that situation is not unique in metros around the country. In the average U.S. metro area, 13 percent of households earned less than $15,000 in 2011. Those metros at the bottom of the list, like McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, have fully 24 percent of their population earning less than $15,000. While the jump in the federal minimum wage will by no means alleviate the economic pain faced by all these households, the number of potential beneficiaries is significant.

Source: U.S. Census

  • Making high-quality preschool available to every child in America.

The benefits of early childhood education are manifest, especially for the disadvantaged, and go beyond simple educational outcomes. For instance, an evaluation of the Chicago Child-Parent Center Program found that children provided with the program’s comprehensive education, family and health services were more likely to finish high school and dropped out of school less, but they also had lower rates of juvenile and violent arrests.

“High-quality” matters, too. Researchers last year investigated the possible mechanisms for large racial and ethnic disparities in a wide range of health indicators, from witnessing gun violence to cigarette smoking and alcohol use to obesity and health status. Studying fifth-graders in Birmingham, Houston and Los Angeles, the researchers found that household income and school quality either explain all or a substantial portion of the disparities which, importantly, were already present by the time the kids had reached fifth grade. Access is important, but quality — and quality early on — cannot be ignored.

  • We won’t grow the middle class simply… by forcing communities to lay off more teachers, cops and firefighters.

However vague it may be, a “balanced approach to deficit reduction” is critical to the health of state and local governments, which rely on discretionary spending that is most at risk from sequestration and some (Republican) deficit reduction suggestions. State and local budget cuts, which further federal cutbacks would only worsen, are still continuing to harm economic recovery. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities counts 46 states that have reduced services and more than 30 that have raised taxes. Even as job creation continues to be a major concern, local government employment has tanked since 2009.

  • One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton.

Obama used the mass shootings in Newtown, Aurora and elsewhere to argue for a gun control package, but he also put a face to the more prevalent gun violence that takes place in U.S. cities. Background checks are no panacea for the type of violence affecting the South and West Sides of Chicago, though some think they are not a bad start. But one can imagine an effective supplement: A combination of better paying jobs, more and better quality education, and a federal government that supports the services its state and local governments are expected to provide.

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Tags: chicagowashington dcbarack obamabudgetsminimum wagegun violence

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