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Opinion

Urban suffering grew under Reagan

As some Americans mourn the death of Ronald Reagan as

if they'd lost a friend, let us recall that the two-term president was no

friend to America's cities.

Politically, Reagan owed little to urban voters, big-city mayors, black or

Hispanic leaders, or labor unions - the major advocates for metropolitan

concerns. His indifference to their problems was legendary. Early in his

presidency, at a White House reception, he went up to the only black member of

his cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce, and said,

"How are you, Mr. Mayor? I'm glad to meet you. How are things in your city?"

Reagan not only failed to recognize his own HUD secretary; he also failed

to deal with the growing corruption scandal at the agency. Indeed, during the

Reagan years, HUD became a feeding trough for Republican campaign contributors.

Fortunately for Reagan, the media didn't uncover the "HUD Scandal" until he

left office. It resulted in the indictment and conviction of top Reagan

administration officials for illegally targeting housing subsidies to

politically connected developers.

Reagan also presided over the dramatic deregulation of the nation's

savings-and-loan industry, which allowed S&L's to end their reliance on home

mortgages and engage in an orgy of commercial real estate speculation. This

ultimately led to a federal taxpayer bailout that cost hundreds of billions of

dollars.

Reagan's fans give him credit for restoring the nation's prosperity. But

the income gap between the rich and everyone else in America widened. Wages for

the average worker declined. The homeownership rate fell. Despite boom times

for the rich, the poverty rate in cities grew.

Reagan is often lauded as "the great communicator," but he used his

rhetorical skills to stigmatize poor people, which laid the groundwork for

slashing the social safety net - despite the fact that Reagan's own family had

been rescued by New Deal anti-poverty programs during the Depression.

During his stump speeches, Reagan often told the story of a so-called

welfare queen in Chicago who drove a Cadillac and had ripped off $150,000 from

the government using 80 aliases, 30 addresses, a dozen Social Security cards

and four fictional dead husbands. Reagan dutifully promised to roll back

welfare. Journalists searched for this welfare cheat and discovered that she

didn't exist. Nevertheless, he kept using the anecdote.

Overall Reagan cut federal assistance to local governments by 60 percent.

In 1980, federal dollars accounted for 22 percent of big-city budgets, but when

he left office, it was down to 6 percent.

Reagan's most dramatic cut was for low-income housing subsidies. Soon after

taking office, he appointed a housing task force dominated by developers,

landlords and bankers. Its 1982 report called for "free and deregulated"

markets as an alternative to government assistance. Reagan followed their

advice. Between 1980 and 1989, HUD's budget authority was cut from $74 billion

to $19 billion in constant dollars. The number of new subsidized housing starts

fell from 175,000 to 20,000 a year.

One of Reagan's most enduring legacies is the steep increase in homeless

people. By the late 1980s, the number of homeless had swollen to 600,000 on any

given night and 1.2 million over the course of a year.

Defending himself against charges of callousness toward the poor, Reagan

gave a classic blaming-the-victim statement. In 1984 on "Good Morning America"

he said that people sleeping on the streets "are homeless, you might say, by

choice."

President George W. Bush, who often claims Reagan's mantle, last month

proposed cutting one-third of the Section 8 housing vouchers - a lifeline

against homelessness for 2 million poor families. In this and many other ways,

the Reagan revolution toward the cities continues.

We've already named a major airport and schools and streets after Ronald

Reagan. But perhaps a more fitting tribute to his legacy would be for each

American city to name a park bench - where at least one homeless person sleeps

every night - in honor of our 40th president.

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