Cities in Trouble On All Fronts

July 02, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

At busy Baltimore street corners -- adjacent to Oriole Park, for example, or on 29th Street at St. Paul -- watch for new indicators of decline in the political power of American cities.

The newest panhandling placards may say, "DALP Veteran, Please Help."

DALP stands for Disability Assistance and Loan Program, a $34 million public assistance fund that offered cash assistance to disabled Marylanders.

It officially went out of business yesterday. It wouldn't have happened in the heyday of urban political power. Because most of DALP's 16,000 recipients lived in Baltimore, the program would have survived any criticisms.

Now, its death stands as a symbol of the increasing dependency and political helplessness of cities. As power ebbs, problems grow.

Baltimore is now one of just five U.S. cities harboring half the nation's underclass. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit are the other cities, according to Isabel Sawhill of the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Of the remaining poor, about 80 percent live in 37 other cities. Each of these cities has large concentrations of female-headed families, dropouts, welfare recipients and jobless, working-age men. Though poor people are still found outside metropolitan areas, she said, the underclass is "disproportionately an urban phenomenon."

If a camera could capture the shift in populations over the last decade or so, it might show able-bodied, tax-paying residents sprinting for the county line. They're leaving behind the immobile poor, people who can't sell their houses and the rich.

No wonder, then, that state politics are increasingly dominated by suburbanites, some of whom resent the flow of state aid to the cities. Needy or not, the city is increasingly on its own.

In a recent Washington meeting with state and local job training officials, Ms. Sawhill said, representatives of the cities uniformly lamented Congress' decision to meld various entitlement programs into capped or block grants that will be sent to state governments for distribution.

"Governors are going to have much less money and they'll be under immense fiscal pressure, so it's pretty predictable that the constituencies with the greatest power won't have the greatest needs," Ms. Sawhill said.

Citing these very pressures, Gov. Parris N. Glendening closed DALP, setting aside Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's urgent appeals.

The program covered basic needs of about 20,000 adults, most of them Mr. Schmoke's constituents, giving each a monthly payment of $157. About half also received free medical care through DALP, at an annual cost of $13.5 million.

"We estimate there will be another 1,000 homeless people on the street daily," said Mr. Schmoke, who had spared the new governor a public campaign to win restoration of the benefits -- and who was still obliged to thank the governor for his willingness to consider Baltimore's case. Mr. Glendening's good offices will be needed again.

Huge Democratic turnouts in Baltimore were once a decisive factor in state elections. Baltimore still presents a formidable threat on Election Day, but the city and surrounding Baltimore County are now behind Montgomery and Prince George's counties as reservoirs of voters. As a result of population losses between 1980 and 1990, Baltimore has two fewer state senators, further weakening its once-dominant voting position in Annapolis.

The all-points assault on cities is not new, says Gary Orfield, a Harvard professor of education and social policy.

"In the 1960s, President Johnson's Great Society transferred money to cities, but we're in our third wave of cutting back on direct federal programs."

'Anti-minority sentiment'?

This pulling back has been driven in recent times by a "vicious anti-city, anti-minority sentiment," he added.

That sentiment has something like free rein in places where Democratic cities are arrayed against Republican suburbs and states with Republican governors.

Two of the largest cities in the nation, New York and Los Angeles, have Republican mayors. In New York, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani asked the state not to fund welfare programs, apparently in the hope that the poor would leave.

Cities also find themselves victimized even by actions designed to help their residents.

In Georgia, for example, the majority-black 11th congressional district draws voters from Augusta, Atlanta and Savannah. Georgia -- once dominated by white Democrats -- now has a congressional delegation made up of three black Democrats and eight white Republicans, whose constituencies are often unsympathetic to urban interests.

"These districts have helped create Gingrich-type politics, districts where you don't have to balance interests," Mr. Orfield said, referring to House Speaker Newt Gringrich, who represents a majority-white district in Atlanta's suburbs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that race cannot be the predominant factor when legislators draw lines for congressional and local districts -- a decision that invalidated Georgia's 11th District.

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