Urban Politics Research Paper

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Theories of Urban Politics

III. Research Methodology

IV. The City in the Federal System

A. The National Government

B. State Governments

C. Home Rule

V. Urban Political Structures

A. A Word on the Urban Political Machine

B. The Reform Movement

1. Strong Mayor Council Form

2. Council Manager Form

3. Mayor Council Chief Administrative Officer

4. Commission Form

C. Urban Elections

1. Voter Turnout

2. Nonpartisan Elections

3. At Large Versus District Elections

4. Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

VI. Race and Ethnicity in American Cities

VII. Wealth and Poverty in American Cities

VIII. Urban Public Policy

A. On the Ground

B. In Washington

IX. Conclusion

I. Introduction

Summarizing and synthesizing the literature on urban politics is a challenging and rewarding task. The field is by definition interdisciplinary, encompassing political science, economics, sociology, planning, and other fields. To their credit, political scientists have effectively integrated the work of these allied scholars into their research and writing on urban governance.

This research paper focuses on the study of urban politics in the United States. This field is particularly vibrant in the United States, given the nation’s federal structure and its deep tradition of, and affection for, local government. In the United States, cities have a political life of their own, independent of the national government, and thus are susceptible to fruitful academic study and analysis.

The theoretical approach to urban politics is discussed first, followed by a description of methodological approaches used by political scientists in their research and analysis of cities. As with every topic in political science, the study of cities involves multiple subjects: governance, leadership, and management; elections and participation; and public policy, including land use, infrastructure, transportation, housing, law enforcement, education, economic development, and wealth and poverty. Each of these areas is considered in turn.

II. Theories of Urban Politics

The number of seminal texts that offer theories of urban politics is relatively small. These texts, however, have had a major impact on the field of political science, in particular on the analysis of domestic politics. Several of the major conceptual frameworks used by scholars to understand the operation of political systems have been developed through the study of American cities. Elitism, pluralism, and hyperpluralism, to name just the most noteworthy, are theories studied worldwide and applied to many different types of systems and organizations. These theories emerged from the study of Atlanta, New Haven, and other cities. From these foundational texts have emerged several variants offered by political scientists, sociologists, and economists that elaborate or refine the initial offerings. Among these are the growth coalition perspective and regime theory.

Floyd Hunter’s (1953) study of Atlanta, Community Power Structure, first drew readers’ attention to the fact that it may not be the mayor and the City Council who hold all or any of the power in a city. Using sociological methods of reputational analysis and extended interviews, Hunter’s examination of the power structure in Atlanta led him to conclude that power was concentrated in the hands of very few people, primarily members of the economic elite.

In Who Governs? political scientist Robert Dahl (1963) reacted to Hunter’s theory with a detailed examination of New Haven. For Dahl, the way to understand what is happening in a city is to examine the decisions made by policymakers and track the influences on those decisions. From this analysis, Dahl concluded that what happens in city government is the result of competition among groups in different policy arenas. Power is fragmented and decentralized among the groups, and the same groups do not always win. Rather, the outcomes will vary from policy area to policy area. Land-use decisions may be dominated by property owners, while education decisions are dominated by parents and teachers’ unions. The mayor is the mediator among the contending groups. Competition for control of public policy among groups within a city, for Dahl and his pluralist followers, defined urban politics.

In the late 1970s, Douglas Yates and others examined New York City, New Haven, San Francisco, and several other cities and developed an extension of Dahl’s theory, variously referred to as street fighting pluralism, hyperplu ralism, or neopluralism. As a result of the increased activism in American cities spurred by the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, power in cities was now so “fragmented, unstable and reactive” that cities had become “ungovernable” (Yates, 1980, p. 85).

A variant of elite theory that gained prominence in the 1970s and continues to be influential today is the growth coalition or growth machine perspective. Neo-Marxist thinker Harvey Molotch and his collaborator, John Logan, provide a seminal contribution to this school of thought. According to Molotch’s (1976) article “The City as Growth Machine,” landowners and businesses work with government to “intensify the economic functions of land use” (p. 313). This collaboration explains “the shape of the city, the distribution of people and the way they live together” (Logan & Molotch, 1987, p. 2). For a more political take on this perspective, Paul Peterson (1981), in City Limits, explains city politics and policy as the result of city leaders’ desire to retain businesses and population in the face of intercity and global competition. City policy, then, is not about serving the needs of the residents but about maintaining a friendly business climate.

Clarence Stone’s (1989) work, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988, introduces the concept of the urban regime as yet another means for understanding the politics and policies of cities. For regime theorists, city politics is a combination of elitism and pluralism. Stone and his followers allow that power and influence are fragmented but assert that levels of influence are not equal. Elected officials and government institutions do matter, as do voters, but economic actors, making private decisions, have inordinate influence over the urban economy. These political and economic, public and private actors combine in long-term coalitions, or regimes, that determine the shape of policy in the city. These regimes vary in their elements from city to city, thus allowing an explanation of differences among cities.

Jane Jacobs’s (1993) seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, while not a political science text, deserves some attention for its influence on thinking about what makes cities work. First published in 1961, the book stands as a challenge to the urban renewal strategies proposed and implemented in the 1950s and 1960s. These strategies resulted in the creation of the American suburbs and the draining of American cities of many middle-class residents and much of their vitality. Jacobs, writing from the perspective of an urban planner, argues that the physical layout and administrative divisions of a city determine the city’s success. She argues for mixed-use buildings, small blocks, and population density. These characteristics, she argues, will foster cities that are economically vibrant and diverse—places that people care about and care for.

From a governance perspective, Jacobs (1993) argues that so-called great cities must reform their structure by dividing themselves into administrative districts, horizontally, as the settlement houses have done, taking responsibility for all services in “a piece of the city.” Jacobs also argues that cities are most successful when they have vibrant neighborhoods—small blocks with a mixture of residential and commercial uses. These neighborhoods engage in self-government: They “weave webs of public surveillance to protect strangers as well as themselves; they grow networks of small-scale everyday public life and thus of trust and social control, and they help assimilate children into reasonably responsible and tolerant city life” (p. 156). From these neighborhoods, city dwellers move out into other healthy, vibrant neighborhoods for their jobs, dentists, recreation, friends, shops, and entertainment, and even their children’s schools. This is the diversity the city brings to the life of its residents and the diversity that city officials must foster if they wish to govern a safe, thriving city.

In his recent books, The Rise of the Creative Class and Who’s Your City? urban theorist Richard Florida (2002, 2008) argues that it is the characteristics of the people in the city, not its physical layout or its power relations, that determine a city’s success and vitality. Florida’s research leads him to conclude that new ideas are generated and our productivity increases when we locate close to each other in cities and that cities with an open-minded and tolerant culture are likely to foster creativity and thus breed economic success and a high quality of life (2002, p. xxi). Florida argues that mayors should abandon the traditional tools of economic development—tax breaks for corporate headquarters and massive investments like sports stadiums and convention centers—and instead focus on policies that encourage the “three T’s”: technology, tolerance, and talent.

Students of politics who seek to understand the operation of cities would be well-advised to follow the advice provided in one of the classic textbooks in the field, Lineberry and Sharkansky’s (1978) Urban Politics and Public Policy. They recommend a systems approach to the study of urban areas, one that has both macro- and microelements that take into account resources and constraints imposed by the environment, the nature of decision makers, the array of individual and group actors in the city, and the availability of information and the state of knowledge about policy problems. In short, cities are complex entities that sit in a complex state, national, and global environment. That complexity makes theory building a challenge.

Overall, there is no grand theory, widely accepted by the discipline, of how cities operate. Informed by sociology and economics and guided by the grand concepts of elitism and pluralism, political scientists continue their work on the development of concepts and theory in the field of urban politics.

III. Research Methodology

Political scientists who study urban politics employ an array of methods in their examination and analysis of cities. There is, however, a strong preference for qualitative methods, in particular case studies and applied policy studies. Quantitative analysis can be found in the field, particularly when data sets are easily available, such as in the areas of criminal justice, economics, and demographics. In his review of the field, DeLeon concludes, “Although sample survey research and secondary analysis of sample survey data continue to dominate mainstream political science methodology, the case study is most favored in urban political research” (cited in Vogel, 1997, p. 20).

The review of the aforementioned theories supports this conclusion. Hunter’s study of Atlanta and Dahl’s study of New Haven paved the way for DeLeon’s study of San Francisco, Stone’s work on Atlanta, Mollenkopf’s work on New York and San Francisco, and Sonenshein’s work on Los Angeles.

Within these cases, a variety of methods are used for gathering data, from the intensive interviews and reputational analysis used by Hunter in Atlanta to the analysis of government documents, content analysis of the media, and the deep and wide empirical observation (sometimes called the soak-and-poke method of research) of Sonenshein in Los Angeles.

IV. The City in the Federal System

American cities do not exist in a political or administrative vacuum. They sit on the geographic territory of a state within the political boundary of the United States of America. These layers of jurisdiction have multiple consequences for the operation of American cities.

A. The National Government

Although interest in American cities ebbs and flows at the national level, there are hundreds of federal laws and regulations that affect the operation of cities in multiple ways every day. Federal law and policy imposes mandates, both funded and unfunded, that dictate policy direction and constrain—and strain—fiscal resources at the municipal level. For example, in the area of education, Title I (the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965), now known as the No Child Left Behind Act, provides about $30 billion in annual funding to states, most of which is passed through to local school districts. These districts must comply with the mandates of the act, including increased student testing, higher student standards, and sanctions for schools that do not meet those standards. Critics argue that the federal dollars are insufficient to cover the costs of the mandates. Cities, and all school districts, however, must shape their spending and their educational policies to meet federal guidelines.

In many other areas, from law enforcement to environmental regulation, the construction of buildings, and community development and housing to health care financing and health care delivery, federal funding provides the national government with a lever to shape city policy. This is desirable from the perspective of uniform national standards and the guarantee of a minimum level of funding nationwide. This relationship, often called fiscal federalism, is criticized by those who favor local control and regional diversity.

A recent example from Maine reveals the difficulty of the national–local relationship. In that state, in late 2009, the North Berwick school board voted to forgo an $18,000 federal grant for a family planning program at the high school because the federal government requires, as a condition of the grant, that the school health service offer a socalled morning-after pill in circumstances where it is deemed appropriate. Rather than comply with the federal mandate, the school board chose to do without the federal funds (Claffey, 2010).

Other examples of national standards constraining the behavior of municipal governments come from the Supreme Court. The famous Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954, for example, prohibited racial segregation in school districting, thus changing the behavior of hundreds of local school boards. The City of Boston, as another example, found the transportation and districting aspects of its school system taken over in 1974 by Federal Judge Arthur Garrity after his finding that the school board of that city was gerrymandering school districts to ensure racial segregation. The Supreme Court has issued dozens of opinions defining what a city may or may not do regarding the display of religious symbols on city property, the granting of religious holidays to city workers, and the integration of religious ceremonies into city celebrations. The Court has also dictated the conduct of city elections, the parameters of a city’s power of eminent domain, and the propriety of city handgun ordinances.

American cities cannot be fully understood without taking into account the policy and funding preferences and the fiscal and judicial levers of control in the hands of national policymakers.

B. State Governments

Although local governments predate state governments in U.S. history, the creation of the nation under the Constitution ended the independent existence of local governments. In fact, the U.S. Constitution makes no mention of any level of government below the state level, thus setting in place a system of state dominance over local governments that has been enshrined in constitutional law and political practice. In 1868, in the most famous judicial statement of this relationship, Iowa’s Chief Justice, John F. Dillon, promulgated the oft-cited Dillon’s Rule that asserts that states exert total control over cities and that cities are “mere tenants at will of the [state] legislature” (cited in Judd & Swanstrom, 2006, p. 38). This relationship was cemented by malapportionment in state legislatures that reflected the view that “the average citizen in the rural district is superior in intelligence, superior in morality and superior in self-government to the average citizen of the great cities” (p. 39). As a consequence of this attitude, by 1900, “every state had ensured that no matter how large the cities became, representatives from rural districts would continue to hold a controlling majority in state legislatures” (p. 39). It was not until the Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decisions of the 1960s that this malapportionment was addressed and urban areas found their representation in state legislatures and the U.S Congress increasing. By that time, however, Judd and Swanstrom note, it was too late:

The nation’s population and therefore the balance of power in national politics were shifting to the suburbs and to the Sunbelt. If cities had gained equal representation in the state legislatures and in Congress decades earlier, the influence of urban voters would have virtually guaranteed . . . funding for mass transit, public housing, urban revitalization, and com munity health programs. (p. 40)

Instead, cities continue to struggle for state and local attention to these priorities.

C. Home Rule

Still within this framework of federal mandates, state dominance, and bias toward rural areas, cities do have significant control over their own politics and policies. Starting with Missouri in 1875, states began to integrate into their constitutions provisions for home rule that permitted municipalities to draft their own charters, make their own laws, and raise their own taxes. Today, 44 states have some provision for home rule in their constitutions. It should be noted, however, that although cities do have varied degrees of control over their own governing structures and public policy decisions, urban reliance on state aid and the ongoing ability of states to exercise statutory and regulatory control over cities make governors and state legislators important influences in the life and well-being of American cities.

V. Urban Political Structures

Understanding urban politics requires taking into account not only federal and state actors but also the formal locations of power and organization of political power in cities themselves.

A. A Word on the Urban Political Machine

In most American cities from the time of the founding through the end of the 19th century, the form of government mimicked the state and national model of an elected executive: the mayor, with considerable independent power, who governed with an elected district-based legislature, the city council. Political parties were alive and well in American cities and were in fact the key to understanding the dynamics of urban politics. The urban political system in most major 19th-century cities was organized by tightly run political party machines. These machines organized the recruitment of candidates and ensured their election by financial support and voter mobilization. They mobilized voters by providing them with material rewards—jobs, hods of coal, Christmas turkeys—in return for electoral support. And the organizers of the machine, often not elected officials themselves, enriched themselves through government contracts, payoffs, and other corrupt practices. Although the machines are maligned by some historians, political scientists, and journalists, others give them credit for organizing city politics, bringing new voters into the system, and providing for the material needs of the urban poor. Political scientists and political journalists have written dozens of books on the machines of Kansas City (Dorsett, 1980), New York’s Tammany Hall (Riordan & Quinn, 1995), Chicago (Rakove, 1976), San Francisco (Bean, 1968), Jersey City (McKean, 1967), and others that give the reader deep insights into the dynamics, advantages, and disadvantages of this significant urban political form.

B. The Reform Movement

At the beginning of the 20th century, the corrupt practices and amoral politics of machine politicians generated reaction among good government reformers and progressives. They described the machine as follows:

affront to their ethical values . . . violated their conceptions of policymaking by professional management . . . capitalized on social cleavages within the electorate and was therefore also at variance with the reformers’ belief in the interest of the community as a whole. (Lineberry & Sharkansky, 1978, p. 124)

Led by muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, the growing newspaper and magazine industry began to investigate and uncover the corruption of the urban political bosses. In this climate, in 1894, a group of good government reformers (often called goo goos) gathered to found the National Municipal League, which generated dozens of proposals for altering the structure of urban politics to undercut the power of the machines. Much of what we see of political structure and process in American cities today is the result of the reformers’ work.

1. Strong Mayor Council Form

The oldest form of city government, and—as noted previously—the one most susceptible to domination by a machine, is the strong mayor-city council form. This form mimics the national government of the United States, with a mayor and a legislature, elected separately, with independent but overlapping powers. There are variations on this theme in terms of how many other members of the executive branch are elected (city solicitors, tax collectors, and school superintendents are sometimes elected separately), whether the mayor can veto acts of the council, whether council members are elected at large or by district, the length of terms, and the presence of term limits, among others. The larger and more demographically and economically diverse the city is, the more likely it is to have this model of government. Older cities in the Northeast and Midwest also favor this form. Of the 25 largest cities in the United States, 17 have the strong mayor model. They are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego (since 2006), Detroit, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, San Francisco, Columbus, Memphis, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Seattle, Boston, and Denver. The 8 that do not are all in the West or South: Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, San Jose, Austin, Fort Worth, Charlotte, and El Paso (Strong Mayor-Council Institute, n.d.).

The advantages of the strong mayor model are as follows: There is the concentrated power and control that cities may need in times of crisis; there is a central figure who can mobilize public sentiment; and the mayor can, if successful, mediate the various contending social, ethnic, and economic interests in the city. The disadvantages of this model are that the chief executive is a politician, who may hold the particular interests of his supporters as more important than the interests of the city as a whole. A strong mayor may be more prone to corruption, given that he has greater access to city resources. And he may lack the budgeting, policy, and technical skills needed to manage a complex organization. Despite these problems, however, the Strong Mayor-Council Institute (n.d.) reports that since 1990, nine major cities (Tulsa, St. Petersburg, Fresno, Oakland, Sioux Falls, Spokane, Hartford, Richmond, and San Diego) have adopted this model, while only three (El Paso, Topeka, and Cedar Rapids) have moved in the other direction.

2. Council Manager Form

That other direction is the council-manager form of municipal government. In this model, the city council is relatively weak and certainly part-time. There usually is no mayor in this model, although often the council president bears the title of mayor and serves as the ceremonial or symbolic head of the city. The council appoints a full-time city manager who acts as the chief executive officer of the city. The manager writes the budget, hires and fires all department heads, and consults with the council on only those relatively few issues mandated by the city charter (such as adoption of the budget, changes in the tax rates, or the passage of new city statutes). As noted, this model was developed by reformers as an antidote to the perceived and real corruption of the urban political machine. The stated purpose of the model is to put a professional administrator in charge of the city, separating administration from politics, as a way of minimizing corruption, maximizing efficiency and effectiveness of service delivery, and saving tax dollars. The disadvantage of this model is that the most powerful person in the city is not accountable to the public and, as noted previously, not charged with the political tasks of mobilizing public support or mediating conflict among contending city interests.

The council-manager form of government is seen by its proponents as providing the best of both worlds: a council that is responsive to the public and can hire and fire the manager at will and a manager who is a professional urban administrator and is politically neutral as he carries out the business of the city. For these reasons, according to the International City Managers Association (ICMA, the leading proponent of this model), 3,302 cities have this type of government, as do almost 400 counties, and on average, 63 communities (all relatively small in size) adopt this model each year, while only two abandon it.

3. Mayor Council Chief Administrative Officer

In recent years, some of the largest American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and New Orleans, have seen the addition of a chief administrative officer or a city administrator to the mayor’s staff. The position is similar to a city manager in that he or she is hired for his or her professional competence in the administrative aspects of urban management. This model is in some ways a hybrid between the strong mayor model and the council-manager model in that it injects a trained manager into city government while retaining the political functions of the mayor. Given the increased complexity and interdependence of city services and the large number of federal and state policy mandates that bring budgetary and reporting complexity with them, one might expect to see more mayors adding this position to their teams (Fahim, 2005).

4. Commission Form

The commission form of government was first adopted in Galveston, Texas, in 1900 as a way of increasing the governing capacity of the city council (in the wake of a devastating hurricane) by giving each council member (now called a commissioner) administrative responsibilities. Five to seven commissioners are elected by the voters. Each commissioner has both executive and legislative responsibility for several policy areas within the city. There is no overall integrative mechanism. For this reason primarily, very few cities employ this model today. Portland, Oregon, is the only large city in this category and is joined by several dozen smaller communities, mostly in the South.

C. Urban Elections

The timing and structure of elections at the local level are even more varied than the forms of government. As with the move to council-manager government, progressive reformers of the early 1900s advocated successfully for a number of reforms in the electoral process that remain in effect today. The purpose of most of these reforms was to squeeze out of local elections as much politics as possible. Many communities adopted off-year elections for their cities in order to separate the fate of the city from the state and national contests. Nonpartisan elections were widely adopted as well, in keeping with the axiom that “there is no Democratic or Republican way to sweep the streets.” Today, 75% of municipal elections are nonpartisan. A related reform was the implementation of atlarge, or citywide elections to replace district or ward elections. This, too, was designed to break the hold of the local political party machine on city politics and to allow for the election of the most qualified candidate regardless of his or her partisan affiliation or address. Other reforms include the adoption of initiative, referendum, and recall as mechanisms for voters to exert direct control over policy outcomes and political leaders in their cities.

1. Voter Turnout

Although these reforms did have the effect of disconnecting urban elections from national and state political trends, they also resulted in dramatic reductions in voter participation in urban elections. It is not unusual to find turnouts of 10% or lower when only local offices are up for grabs. For example, in the June 2009 elections for five municipalities in Clark County, Nevada, local officials predicted a turnout rate of 12% at best (Hansen, Twitchell, & Van Oot, 2009).

2. Nonpartisan Elections

Nonpartisan elections also have an impact on both voter choice and voter turnout. Without political parties to organize their thinking and provide cues about candidates, voters may be more likely to stay home and are certainly more likely to be susceptible to other signals when determining their choices at the polls. Raymond (1992) has found that in nonpartisan elections, voters tend to focus on “candidates’ personal qualities, background characteristics, name recognition and local activism—and not on issues” (p. 248). Ethnic voting increases in the nonpartisan context as voters with no other information use the candidate’s last name to guide their choice. Class bias may also be deepened in nonpartisan elections, given that media advertising becomes that much more important without party labels and party workers. Wealthier candidates thus gain greater access to voters and have an advantage on Election Day. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2003 proposal to switch NewYork City to a nonpartisan system was opposed and ultimately defeated by a coalition of blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans who argued that such a system would disadvantage candidates and voters from their communities.

3. At Large Versus District Elections

At-large elections have the advantage of reducing the parochial, neighborhood focus of ward or district representatives. Such a system makes it easier for city council members to consider policy from a citywide perspective and to engage in integrative thinking as they approach the city’s policy challenges. Another argument for this feature is that a broader candidate base (citywide) allows for higher quality candidates. In the United States, 64% of cities, primarily the smaller and more affluent ones, use this model. Opponents of an at-large system argue that it allows for the underrepresentation of ethnic and racial minorities since they are consistently outvoted by majorities. Further, its opposite—district elections—produces politicians more in touch with local concerns. On the other hand, district elections may increase conflict on the council and make compromise on policy difficult. District elections for council are in place in 14% of American cities—mostly larger, diverse cities. Some cities (21%) have adopted a hybrid model in which several members of the council are elected from districts and several at large.

A 2009 lawsuit in Irving, Texas, underscores the significance of this structural feature of urban elections. Of the nearly 200,000 residents of this city, 43% are Hispanic, yet all members of the town council are white. The council is elected on an at-large basis. Resident Manuel Benavidez filed a voting rights suit in federal court arguing that the white voters have used the system to effectively block the election of Hispanic voters. A judge agreed and ordered Irving to adopt a hybrid system in which five council members are elected by district and three are elected at large (Formby, 2010a). The first election under this new system took place on May 8th, 2010. It was expected to produce a reallocation of political power in this Texas city as at least one district was gerrymandered to include a majority of Hispanic voters. Ironically, voters in that district elected an African American, while voters in one of the remaining at large districts elected the first-ever Hispanic council member, who defeated a long-term white incumbent (Formby, 2010b).

4. Initiative, Referendum, and Recall

City charters may have provisions for the directdemocracy instruments of initiative, referendum, and recall. The first is a voter-initiated ballot measure (shall the class size in city schools be capped?), the second is a council-initiated measure (shall the city permit casino gambling or not?), and the third is a voter recall of an elected official. In 1997, for example, the voters of Minneapolis voted to limit city financial assistance to any new sports facility. In the mid-1980s, the voters of San Diego enacted a number of antigrowth measures. In many cities, the city charter requires that sales of city property over a certain value, or increases in taxes, be placed before the voters. Finally, in 2009 alone, recall petitions were filed against the mayors of Akron, Flint, Kansas City, and Portland and against several council members from San Jacinto and San Diego.

The advantages of these measures from a democratic theory perspective are clear. Voters get to make choices directly instead of through their elected representatives, thus increasing voter contact with public policy and enhancing the legitimacy of the outcome. The disadvantages are that recalls may be used by the losers in the most recent election to have a second bite at the apple; initiative and referendum campaigns can be dominated by well-funded interest groups (as in most casino measures) or, alternatively, result in tyranny of the majority (as in some anti-immigrant or anti-gay-marriage measures). And again, given the propensity for low interest in and low turnout for local elections, the ability of small numbers of voters to make major policy decisions is a significant possibility.

Clearly, there is limitless variation in the political structures and processes of American cities. No one form is accepted by political scientists as the ideal form for a city. What political scientists can offer is an understanding of the consequences of the adoption or change in a particular form or process for efficiency of service delivery and representative democracy.

VI. Race and Ethnicity in American Cities

Urban areas are always the most diverse parts of any country since urban ports provide the destination for immigrants and the urban economy offers opportunities to job seekers from other parts of the country and the world. Between 1820 and 1919, 33.5 million immigrants moved to the United States; of those, at least 75% stayed in cities. Internal migration patterns are equally dramatic: Between 1910 and 1970, more than 6 million blacks left Southern fields for Northern cities (Judd & Swanstrom, 2006).

After World War II, the development of American suburbs was fostered by the GI Bill’s provision for easy mortgages for war veterans, the construction of the interstate highway system, the proliferation of the automobile, and the gradual replacement of urban factory jobs with beltway service and technology jobs. These changes, along with the urban riots of the 1960s and Supreme Court decisions prohibiting school segregation and, in some cases, mandating busing to integrate schools, led to the phenomenon known as white flight, the dramatic migration of middle-class whites to the suburbs.

The consequence of these demographic shifts is a large number of majority-minority cities. According to the 2000 Census, in several major cities, including Detroit, Birmingham, New Orleans, Baltimore, Memphis, and Washington, D.C., the African American population exceeds 50%. In still others, including San Antonio, El Paso, Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Laredo, Hialeah (Florida), Miami, Paterson (New Jersey), Reading (Pennsylvania), Downey (California), and East Los Angeles, the Hispanic population comprises more than half of the city.

Unfortunately, the racial segregation of America’s urban areas has been accompanied by economic segregation and all of the social consequences of urban poverty.

VII. Wealth and Poverty in American Cities

In the United States, unlike most other countries, household incomes rise as one moves away from the city center. (Paris stands as the most notable model of the opposite dynamic: The wealthy live at the city’s center, and the poor live in the suburbs that ring the city.) Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom (2001) present data that show that the gap between per capita income in 85 cities and their surrounding suburbs grew continuously between 1960 and 2000. This gap is the result of the migration of two-parent households and new service-sector jobs to the suburbs, while single-parent, female-headed households and job loss stayed behind in the cities (Dreier et al.).

As the demographic shifts occurred throughout the 20th century and racial and economic segregation intensified, conditions in inner cities deteriorated to a point that, by 1967, the National Commission on Civil Disorders (also called the Kerner Commission) declared the existence of “two nations—one black, one white—separate and unequal” (Judd & Swanstrom, 2006, p. 244). A number of books and articles written in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s revealed the existence of an “urban underclass” or a “new urban poverty” driven by persistent unemployment and related to family disorganization, drug use, teen pregnancy, high high school drop-out rates, neighborhood deterioration, and high crime. Jargowsky found that between 1970 and 1990, the “spacial concentration of the poor rose dramatically in many U.S. metropolitan areas,” as the poor became “more physically isolated from the social and economic mainstream of society” (cited in Berube, Katz, & Lang, 2005, Vol. 2, p. 138).

According to the 2000 census, nationwide, urban dwellers are more than twice as likely to be poor as are their suburban counterparts (Berube et al., 2005). Some of the highest urban poverty rates were in Hartford (30.6%), Miami (28.5%), and Newark (28.4%) (Berube et al.). The good news of the 2000 census was that the booming economy of the 1990s reversed the decades-long trend of the concentration of poverty in the inner cities of America. Whether that good news is sustained through the first decade of the 21st century remains to be seen.

VIII. Urban Public Policy

Discussions of public policy in the urban context occur on two levels: on the ground, where mayors and their administrators deliver services to city dwellers, from education to crime-fighting to trash removal to economic development; and from above, as politicians in Washington, D.C., develop (or not) a national approach to the nation’s cities.

A. On the Ground

The academic analysis of policy development and delivery at the level of individual cities takes place primarily in the subfield of public administration, with its focus on city management, public finance, economic development, and urban planning. Here, the discussions and analyses are found in the pages of such publications as Public Administration Review and Governing magazine; in the various forums provided by the ICMA; or at annual meetings of city treasurers, tax collectors, personnel directors, or urban planners. Often, these discussions are among both scholars and practitioners and are focused on debates about the techniques of governance.Any student of urban politics would be well served to listen in on these conversations. Sound management, attentiveness to best practice, familiarity with new technology, and the use of analytical tools like benchmarking and strategic planning—these can often make the difference between a city that works and one that doesn’t. Consider, for example, the introduction of CompStat into the operation of the New York City police department. This data-driven approach to tracking and preventing crime has been credited with contributing to a dramatic reduction in the city’s murder rate, from 1,181 in 1995 to 596 in 2003. By 2004, as a result of New York’s success with this tool, at least one third of the nation’s largest police departments had adopted a similar approach (Weisburd, Mastrofski, Greenspan, & Willis, 2004).

Again, the work in this field is primarily practical, aimed at discovering what works and what doesn’t, and at connecting policymakers with each other to facilitate the improved management of American cities and towns.

Think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute provide a layer of academic sophistication to the analysis of the ground-level operation of American urban centers. For example, in 2008, Brookings released a study of Chattanooga that examined how sound planning and private-sector partnerships combined to rekindle economic growth in this small city. Here again, students of cities are well served by this literature, which focuses on the factors that help illuminate explanations for success and failure in urban policy.

B. In Washington

Urban policy at the national level is much more variable than at the local level. Presidents and Congress focus on cities when they must (as in the 1960s in the midst of urban riots) or when the political winds blow in that direction. Urban policy is essentially the province of the Democratic Party, which captured urban voters as part of the New Deal coalition and has yet to let them go. The 1960s was the decade when attention to urban issues reached a peak in Washington, pushed by events on the ground and pulled by Democratic politicians like Lyndon Johnson, whose War on Poverty promised to “eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty in this nation,” and whose Model Cities legislation claimed that “improving the quality of urban life is the most critical domestic problem facing the United States” (Judd & Swanstrom, 2006, p. 178). Throughout the 1970s, support for these programs waned until, by the Reagan presidency, the national debate focused on eliminating the programs. Even President Clinton, a Democrat, rarely spoke of urban policy and programs, but rather focused on welfare reform, immigration reform, and fiscal responsibility. State and federal aid to cities reflects this trend: In 1978, 26% of municipal revenues came from state and federal sources; by 2000, the share had dropped to 7% (Judd & Swanstrom). Cities were on their own. The election of Barack Obama may signal renewed attention to America’s cities with the establishment of the Office of Urban Affairs as one of his first acts as president (White House, 2009).

IX. Conclusion

American cities are fruitful ground for political scientists. They have all of the political phenomena of the national level, from the institutions of power to the processes of democracy to the outputs of government. Their relatively small scale permits in-depth analysis, and their infinite variety provides a wealth of data for comparative analysis. Plentiful resources exist to assist the political science researcher, from detailed census data to endless government documents to journalist case studies and professional journals. Theories abound as to what makes cities tick. If President Obama is correct that “the economic health and social vitality of our urban communities are critically important to the prosperity and quality of life for Americans” (White House, 2009, Section 1), then political scientists have an important role to play in analyzing how cities work well and what can be done to make them work better.

See also:

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