Suburbs Need Cities

ANTHONY DOWNS

July 12, 1992|By ANTHONY DOWNS

The recent Los Angeles riots have undoubtedly strengthened the myth believed by many American suburbanites that their welfare is almost totally independent of the welfare of residents of their central city.

This belief has been increasing for several decades. One reason is that more jobs have shifted from central cities to suburbs, so fewer suburbanites commute into cities daily.

Also, suburbs have gradually acquired many facilities formerly found only in central cities. These range from major hospitals to sports arenas to quality restaurants and hotels. So fewer suburbanites need to visit central cities to satisfy their retail and cultural desires.

Another factor is the increasing ethnic and racial divergence of these two areas. Nationwide, blacks and Latinos make up 38 percent of the total population of all central cities compared to 14 percent of all suburbanites.

Finally, central cities are home to a big share of the nation's poor. In 1990, almost a fifth of their residents had incomes below the poverty line, compared to a 12th of all suburban residents.

Moreover, concentrated poverty loads central-city governments with heavy costs of serving the low-income population that most suburban governments do not have to bear. Because that forces tax rates in most big cities far above those in the suburbs, it motivates many people with money to leave the former for the latter.

They believe that, by moving out of central cities, they can escape responsibility for dealing with the problems of poverty, crime, drugs and high local taxes they see in well-publicized parts of those cities. And they feel little moral responsibility for those problems because, for the reasons just stated, they perceive central city residents as "different from us."

Yet even the wealthiest suburbs remain strongly linked to their central cities. The economic and social welfare of all suburbanites is greatly affected by what happens to central cities and their residents.

The most powerful linkage is a two-way connection related to jobs. Suburbs need lots of low-wage workers to operate their businesses, governments, service establishments and households; no modern economy can function without many such workers. But most suburbs will not permit low-cost housing within their own boundaries. Hence they must import low-wage workers who live elsewhere -- mainly in central cities and some older suburbs with older, lower-cost housing.

The second job linkage is that about one-third of all suburban wage-earners are still employed within central cities and, therefore, depend on what happens there for their livelihood.

Central cities also contain the hubs and vital portions of major infrastructure networks, which serve their entire metropolitan areas. Those include telephone, electric, water and sewer, railroad and highway systems. Even several major regional airports are situated inside cities, among them New York, Boston and San Diego.

Also unique to many central cities are highly specialized institutions that serve entire regions or large but "thin" markets. Those include universities, major medical centers, wholesale districts of various types.

Even more important, but far less recognized, is that the minority groups concentrated within central cities make up much of the ** nation's future labor force. Hence their skills, abilities and incomes will tremendously affect the prosperity of the entire U.S. economy.

What happens to poor central city children will have an immense impact upon the overall quality of the future U.S. labor force and economy.

No nation can compete in the globalized economy of the future if it raises more than one out of five of its children in poverty and fails to provide one out of 11 with either decent nutrition and nurturing or minimum-quality educations. Yet that is precisely what we will do if we continue to ignore what is happening in large parts of our central cities.

Anthony Downs is a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.

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