Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Urban Governance when the Poor and Rich live in Center Cities and the Middle Class Suburbanize

We all know that over the last 100 years, people and jobs have suburbanized as transportation costs have declined and household incomes have increased. How has this trend affected center city governance in the United States? In an editorial in the 9/21/2005 New York Times, Joel Kotkin points out “Democrats have long drawn their moral, economic and electoral strength from the cities. Yet this urban dominance has its negative side. Despite all the self-congratulatory hoopla about an urban renaissance, prevailing demographic and economic trends show a persistent shift from cities toward the ever-expanding suburbs and exurbs.

And the political result? While cities go overwhelmingly Democratic, the party loses national and state elections. In 1952, for example, New York City accounted for almost half of the voters of New York State; today it accounts for less than a third. It doesn't help that most liberal cities now aspire to become "cool cities" - playgrounds for the ultrarich, nomadic singles and childless couples. By focusing on Wi-Fi zones and loft conversions while schools crumble, liberal cities are essentially ignoring middle- and working-class strivers, particularly those with children.”

Kotkin does not delve into another theme that interests me. How would center city urban governance evolve if the middle class also lived there rather than the suburbs? In the center cities, the rich send their children to private schools, play at private clubs, use private vehicles rather than public transit. While this group pays taxes (if their accountants are mediocre), they have little stake in the quality of urban local public goods with the exception of police protection. Since the rich demand very few public services, they have little incentive to monitor urban politicians. Also, there are not that many rich people even in major cities. A mayor who knows that he needs the median voter to vote for him may not mind alienating the 5% of the city who are rich.

The key counter-factual here is if the middle class had a greater presence in cities how would this affect urban governance? Would there be less corruption and more competence? The middle class are large in number, educated, and they use public services thus they would represent a disciplinary force on a mayor who might pursue his own agenda if the knows that he can get away with it.

If the median voter in a city such as Detroit is a poor person rather than a middle class person, how does this change the set of services and taxes that the center city Mayor enacts?