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
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
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
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.