Urban advocates call for torrent of aid others want mere trickle

May 09, 1992|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Two stories above the streets of Anacostia, a poor, crime-ridden area at the edge of the nation's capital, community activist Lloyd Smith glances out his window.

"If this were a warmer day, you'd see four or five guys," he says, pointing toward a vacant corner. "All these guys who don't see any hope, they're like the guys standing around South L.A."

The fires that consumed vast areas of Los Angeles have illuminated once more the plight of America's cities, until last week a dormant issue in Washington and along the campaign trail.

For years, mayors and urban advocates have pleaded for help as they watched federal dollars dry up, the middle class and businesses flee, crime rise and the cities crumble.

Bill Clinton, the Arkansas governor and likely Democratic presidential nominee, unveiled an urban package in February but has since said little about it. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat whose district includes Harlem, balked at supporting Mr. Clinton last month because he was offering few specifics.

President Bush's urban plan is mostly a rehash of programs long backed by Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp and largely ignored by the president. One of those, enterprise zones -- tax breaks for new businesses in poor areas -- was part of a tax bill that Mr. Bush vetoed.

But the most effective lobbyists may turn out to have been the people who burned, looted and murdered their way through South Central Los Angeles.

Suddenly there was a flurry of calls for action, from the Senate floor to think tanks and editorial pages. In the midst of the debate loomed two figures from the past: Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan.

Democrats seized upon spending ideas like those spawned in )) LBJ's Great Society, calling government-sponsored jobs and aid programs necessary steps to ease the plight of urban residents.

But those very programs were scorned by Mr. Bush and others as misguided handouts that had sapped individual initiative and helped spur the riots in the first place. Instead, Mr. Bush and his allies promoted economic proposals, inspired by the Reagan revolution, to encourage businesses to invest and allow public housing tenants to buy.

Despite the carnage in Los Angeles, many lawmakers, urban experts and political observers -- liberals and conservatives alike -- doubt that any major effort will be mounted to help the cities except for small increases in federal spending.

Aside from philosophical differences, there are budget constraints. But many say the cities can no longer be ignored. Without a long-term effort that includes strong federal support, they contend, the ugly scenes will be repeated elsewhere.

"Cities are still tinderboxes," says Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, who views the grim TV images of looting and death as a "wake-up call" for America. "I think people believe that what happened in Los Angeles could happen anywhere in the country."

"If we can find $150 billion for the savings and loan [bailout], we can surely find $10 billion to $12 billion to invest in our cities," says Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "The real issue is whether federal aid will be cosmetic or real."

"What we saw in Los Angeles is not simply the decision of a 12-juror process," says Mr. Flynn. "It is the result of 12 years of urban neglect."

Federal support for cities has steadily declined during the Reagan-Bush years, according to the Conference of Mayors, which found the federal share of city budgets fell 64 percent between 1980 and 1990.

Longtime programs providing for revenue sharing and Urban Development Action Grants, used to fund public safety and city revitalization projects such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor, have been shut down.

Others such as the Community Development Block Grants, used to rebuild housing and neighborhoods, have survived but at lower funding levels, notes Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

But administration officials say some spending has risen. John C. Weicher, assistant secretary for policy development and research at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, says actual spending on low-income housing rose from $8.25 billion to $16 billion during the period.

While most federal support decreased, costly federal requirements for localities increased, including environmental mandates for wastewater treatment and air quality standards, says Donald Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities.

States, coping with their own federal cutbacks and budget necessities, cannot -- or will not -- offer more help to their cities. Baltimore received $42.6 million this year from the state; city lawmakers had urged a $60 million package.

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