Clinton and America's cities

November 05, 1992

To make sure he would remember the overriding issue in the presidential campaign, a Clinton strategist posted the following note on his office wall: "The economy, stupid!" After Mr. Clinton's convincing victory, one of the president-elect's Baltimore supporters said he was thinking of posting another note to measure the new administration's performance. It would contain this pledge Mr. Clinton made to Ebony magazine: "Creating high-wage jobs will be my top priority. I have proposed a national economic strategy for America that will invest more than $50 billion annually over the next four years to put America back to work."

After 12 years of Republican administrations, under which the federal government shifted and weakened many long-time commitments to localities, few constituencies view the forthcoming Clinton administration with greater expectations than the nation's cities. Even if the federal government, trying to cope with deficits and budget problems, does not have any substantial new money to give, those municipalities expect changed priorities and a sympathetic era in the Clinton White House.

The Clinton campaign repeatedly talked about a "new partnership" to rebuild America's cities. "America's cities should be places where hard-working families can put down roots and find good jobs, affordable housing, decent schools and safe streets," one position paper declared.

Recent changes in standards used by the two big municipal credit rating agencies make a stronger and better defined federal agenda to aid cities an urgent necessity. Under those standards, Moody's Investors Service and Standard & Poor have started including such highly subjective measurements as quality of life and long-term viability in the list of factors determining a city's credit-worthiness.

These new criteria have already resulted in the severe downgrading of Detroit's general obligation bonds. Critics claim that by doing so an investment house has declared Detroit financially and structurally nonviable. Many other cities, from giant metropolises to small rural towns, are shuddering at the likely consequences for them. "When you have hard-nosed analysts like Moody's saying 'we're not going to be on the future of this city,' the next thing is to say 'we're not going to be on this country,' " one economist predicted.

Hard-luck cities are intrinsically intertwined with better-off suburbs in the fabric that is America. Addressing acute urban problems should be one of the Clinton team's urgent priorities.

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