DYSFUNCTION JULY 22, 2013
It's the start of a new week after the bombshell Thursday that Detroit, Michigan—once the fourth-biggest city in the country—announced that it is filing for bankruptcy, making it the largest American city ever to do so. The Obama administration has already pretty much ruled out a grand bailout for the city along the lines of what it provided the auto industry, but there are still plenty of things the federal government can do to lend the stricken city a hand—Detroit Free Press columnist Steve Henderson laid out some of them over the weekend, arguing that, even short of a bailout, the city could become a model for federal initiatives in education and economic redevelopment. “Why shouldn’t Detroit, as classic a case of the horrible consequences of federal and state disinvestment, be the model for a re-examination of what specific federal investment might build?” he wrote.
To get a better sense of what shape such an initiative might take, I gave the Department of Housing and Urban Development a call.
No answer. The entire department is closed today.
Actually, I suspected this was the case, having seen a passing reference in the Washington Post over the weekend. But I wanted to check on it anyway because it seemed too outlandish to be believed. On the Monday after a major American city files for bankruptcy, the federal department tasked with bettering cities is shut down as a result of budget sequestration. It is one of seven furlough days for the department between May and August, which will save about $66 million. And it appears pretty comprehensive—even the department’s Detroit branch office is closed. “We look forward to serving you doing our next business day,” says a woman’s recorded voice at the branch office line.
Now, I have no illusion that there is anything grand that the good people at HUD would have accomplished for Detroit on a single day. Still, the closure is symbolic of the toll that dysfunction at the federal level—the fruits of Republican intransigence and deficit-hysteria among Washington’s Very Serious People—is taking on cities and states. For all the talk about the sequester’s bark being worse than its bite, there have been major cutbacks in services that people in cities like Detroit disproportionately rely on, such as housing assistance and Head Start. And then there are not-infrequent closures of the offices that Detroiters appeal to for assistance, whether it’s HUD or Legal Aid or any other number of other agencies.
HUD’s not something many Americans spend a whole lot of time thinking about, but it is deeply entwined with troubled cities. It oversees not only traditional housing assistance but also the “neighborhood stabilization” grant program, a centerpiece of the 2009 stimulus law designed to fight blight in foreclosure-wracked areas, which is of course nowhere so much a problem as in Detroit. And it administers the community development block grants, a major source of federal funds in inner cities and one that Detroit has come under scrutiny for not handling as well as it could.
There is little talk anymore of “urban policy” as a standalone federal priority—the White House created an Office of Urban Affairs with its own “czar” back in 2009, but its profile has fallen to the point of near invisibility. That may be just as well, given that so many of the social problems of cities are now shared by suburbs and small towns alike (note, for instance, this map showing the rates of food stamp usage); “urban policy” always ran the risk of, well, ghettoizing social problems. But we do still have one department whose charge is to deliver federal assistance to America’s cities. It was even once led by the former governor of Michigan, one George Romney. And today it is not just out to lunch—it’s at the beach.
Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him @AlecMacGillis.