The Ailing Big City Is a Place of Opportunity, for Clinton

NEAL R. PEIRCE

July 10, 1992|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

NEW YORK — New York. -- What will it mean for the Democratic Party to nominate Bill Clinton, the candidate from ''down-home'' Arkansas, in this glittering but deeply troubled city?

One scenario is that the New York-Democratic Party tie could simply fuel the assault of Vice President Dan Quayle and his fellow Republican killer bees on New York as a bastion of bloated, welfare-ridden government.

In an overwhelmingly suburban nation, linking Democrats with big cities, minorities, crime and taxes has been powerful political stuff ever since the days of Spiro Agnew.

But in the wake of Los Angeles riots, will those old arguments wash? Or are Americans ready to listen to Mr. Clinton if, next week in New York and throughout the campaign, he offers a clear and viable vision of reclaiming urban turf and the nation's poor?

It would be a tricky balancing act, at best. And if New York is a metaphor for urban America in 1992, any Clinton urban strategy would be risky. Gotham's economy has been in a tailspin since the Wall Street crash of October 1987. Now the loss is not only manufacturing, as in earlier recessions, but layoffs and mergers in banking, publishing, communications and retailing. Wall Street firms have laid off nearly 30,000 workers in five years.

The social ledger is even more ominous. Since l987, 23,000 jobs have been added to New York's government payrolls, one reason the city faces a $1.8 billion deficit.

Fully 25 percent of New York's people live below the poverty line. Almost one million people are on welfare; the homeless panhandle aggressively and ''rough tail'' passersby; a New York Times survey found more than 50 percent of adult residents plan to leave. Almost half the city's budget goes to services for the poor, while repair of infrastructure falls years behind schedule.

But is the Quayle formula of damning and then ignoring New York and the other big cities a rational response? New York has been down and out often over 200 years, the last time during its frightening brush with bankruptcy in the 1970s. It has always risen again.

And there is a broader point: Rainbow-hued cities are our demographic destiny, a big part of our future work force. America's history, spirit and much of its invested wealth are rooted in places like New York.

The Great Ships don't visit suburban shopping malls. The notion of a successful America with destitute cities is grossly unrealistic.

What, then, does Mr. Clinton have to offer us? The answer is wrapped up in the big national economic and urban program he put out in June. He is calling for a $50-billion-a-year, four-year strategy aimed at creating ''millions of high-wage jobs and helping America compete in the international economy.''

A lot of the plan goes beyond narrow city interests, for example a $20-billion-a-year Rebuild America Fund for infrastructure, information technology, defense conversion and environmental projects. Apprenticeship for non-college-bound youth, and youth service programs to pay off college loans, are included.

For cities, Mr. Clinton's plan has lots of specifics. He wants to create a network of community development banks to provide small loans to low-income entrepreneurs and homeowners in inner cities. He calls for a National Police Corps to help put 100,000 new officers on our streets, including a focus on community policing and career opportunities for people mustered out of the military.

Mr. Clinton is for enterprise zones, but only if benefits go to firms that ''make jobs for local residents a top priority.'' He wants to strengthen the Community Reinvestment Act to ease the credit crunch in inner cities. He would target infrastructure and Community Development Block Grants to urban reconstruction, guaranteeing jobs for low-income residents.

Head Start and infant nutrition programs would get full funding. Welfare recipients would get education and child care for two years, then be expected to work.

There are many ill-defined parts of the Clinton plan. His formula to finance it -- $100 billion worth of tax increases on the wealthy over four years, $100 billion worth of taxes on corporations and $100 billion of spending cuts -- is fuzzy.

But the opening to urban America by this governor from a rural state has generated warm praise from the nation's mayors, long starved for any genuine national attention or interest.

''Now we have a game plan,'' says Louisville's Mayor Jerry Abramson. ''It's exactly what we've been pushing,'' according to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn. ''It is a watershed plan for the Clinton campaign,'' says Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. ''Bush does not care. Perot does not know. But Clinton has got his eye on the future of America.''

That is heady praise, even if the Clinton plan is just a start for cities as troubled as New York. Mr. Clinton's challenge is to wage a campaign that convinces the American people that urban needs and the national future are one. If he can do that, we could all be winners.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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