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Federal Responses to Urban Fiscal Stress and Decline in the United States


This Note reports some findings from a larger study we are embarked upon. Our broader objective is to develop a general theory of the national state's interest in cities in advanced industrial societies. We argue that state officials generally pursue their own interests in the protection and expansion of state power and resources and specifically have interest in the viability of cities, interests that do not simply reflect the interests of private capital or any other societal groups. A broad twofold distinction is made between those state activities necessary for the perpetuation of the state (maintenance of public order, legitimacy, durable political institutions, revenue base) and those necessary for the perpetuation of cities (provision of collective goods, developmental policies and social services). Space limitations preclude a full account and justification of these arguments here. Rather, we present some hypotheses about how such state interests should inform the allocation of funds across cities and report the findings of some initial empirical tests for the United States.

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1 See Gurr Ted Robert and King Desmond S., The State and the City: A State-Centered Theory of Urban Policy in Advanced Industrial Societies (Evanston, III: Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research Working Paper, No. WP-84-#. 1984); and Gurr Ted Robert and King Desmond S., The State and the City (London: Macmillan, 1986).

2 ‘Central cities’ refers to those areas designated as such within Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas by the Bureau of the Census. See Pettengill Robert N. and Uppal Jogindar S., Can Cities Survive? (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974).

3 Our calculation from data on grants-in-aids in US Bureau of the Census, City Government Finances, annual editions. The limitations of these data have been sharply criticized by Thomas Anton and Robert M. Stein. They do not include some large categories of federal aid that flow through state governments to cities; nor do they take account of the distribution among cities of payments directly to individuals (OASI, federal pensions, salaries of federal employees) or to businesses (loans, contracts, procurements). A source which includes most of these categories, but omits or distorts others, is the Community Services Administration's Federal Outlays (annual, 1968–77, titled thereafter Geographic Distribution of Federal Funds). Despite many incomparabilities, however, we found that the aggregate federal funds to cities in 1980 reported in the two sources to correlate at 0.93. For our purposes, the omission of some kinds of programmes and expenditures from these sources is not a serious limitation because we are concerned with analysing inequalities in the distribution of funds among cities rather than absolute levels of funding. And since we are concerned specifically with funds provided by the national state to municipal governments, the City Government Finances data on grants-in-aid are the most appropriate of the two. See Anton Thomas, ‘Outlays Data and the Analysis of Federal Policy’, in Glickman Norman J., ed., The Urban Impact of Federal Policies (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and Stein Robert M., ‘The Allocation of Federal Aid Monies: The Synthesis of Demand-Side and Supply-Side Explanations’, American Political Science Review, LXXV (1981), 334–43.

4 See Hale G. E. and Palley M. L.. The Politics of Federal Grants (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1981).

5 Our analysis of data for 183 cities with populations over 100,000 from City Government Finances.

6 See Alt James and Chrystal Alec, Political Economics (Brighton, Sussex: Wheatsheaf, 1983) and Tufte Edward R., Political Control of the Economy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978).

7 Of the seventy-four cities, thirty-nine had elected mayors, thirty-one had city manager governments, and four had commission governments. Cities with elected mayors were coded ‘l’, others ‘0’.

8 See Fiorina M. and Noll R., ‘Voters, Bureaucrats and Legislators: A Rational Choice Perspective on the Growth of Government’, Journal of Public Economics, IX (1977), 239–54; and Rose R., Understanding Big Government: The Programme Approach (London: Sage, 1984).

9 Button reports interview evidence on the attitudes of federal and municipal officials during the urban riots of the 1960s and the kinds of programmatic changes they sought to alleviate urban and racial problems. Mollenkopf atrributes the shaping of US urban policy between the 1930s and 1960s to a ‘pro-growth coalition’ of national Democratic political entrepreneurs, though he says little about the role of federal administrators in the process. In Western Europe, most civil servants and scholars concerned with urban and social policy believe that the modern welfare state should take an activist role in redressing the undesirable consequences of spatially-uneven economic growth and decline (see van den Berg et al. , passim). Our interpretation here is that such views were relatively common among senior officials responsible for federal social, housing, and urban policy during the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and that they could pursue these programmatic objectives with more continuity than elected ‘political entrepreneurs’ (Button J. W., Black Violence: Political Impact of the 1960s Riots (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978); Mollenkopf John, The Contested City (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); and den Berg L. Van et al. , Urban Europe: A Study of Growth and Decline (New York: Pergamon Press, 1982)).

10 See Gelfand Mark, ‘How Cities Arrived on the National Agenda in the United States’, in Ashford D. E., ed., Financing Urban Government in the Welfare State (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1980).

11 Cuciti P., City Need and the Responsiveness of Federal Grant Programs (Washington, D.C.: Report to the US House of Representative Committee on Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs, Subcommittee on the City, 1978).

12 See Button, Black Violence, and the review of the empirical studies in Gurr Ted Robert, ‘On the Outcomes of Violent Conflict’, in Gurr Ted Robert, ed., Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research (New York: The Free Press, 1980).

13 Washington, D.C. is an outlying case with respect to federal employment, federal aid per capita, and a number of other variables. It was excluded from the analyses reported below after preliminary analyses showed that its inclusion substantially inflated correlations. Fifteen of the remaining seventy-four cases are state capitals, which in some federal programmes are credited with grants-in-aid which are in fact passed through to other local governments. Excluding them from the analysis did not significantly alter the correlations, so they were retained in the final analysis.

14 A number of other variables were used in a larger set of analyses reported in King Desmond S. ‘A Statist Analysis of Central Slate Penetration of Municipalities in Advanced Industrial Societies’ (unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University, 1985).

15 For a full list of sources used see Appendix of King, ‘A Statist Analysis’. The crime data are from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. We coded the data on characteristics of racial disturbances from Facts on File, Violence in the US, Vol I: 1956–67: Vol 2: 1968–71 (New York: Facts on File, 1974).

16 The federal grants data do not include AFDC and other transfer payments to the poor. The significant correlations between federal aid and measures of individual social and economic need reflect the fact that the government of cities with large concentrations of the poor receive more federal aid, in addition to direct transfer payments to their poor.

17 See Clark T. N., ‘Fiscal Management of American Cities: Funds Flow Indicators’, Journal of Accounting Research, XV (1977), 5499.

18 See Skocpol Theda, ‘Political Response to Capitalist Crisis: Neo-Marxist Theories of the State and the Case of the New Deal’. Politics and Society, X (1980), 155201; and Orloff A. S. and Skocpol T., ‘Why Not Equal Protection? Explaining the Politics of Public Social Spending in Britain, 1900–1911, and the United States, 1880s–1920’, American Sociological Review, II (1984), 726–50.

* Department of Politics, University of Edinburgh and Department of Political Science, University of Colorado, respectively.

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British Journal of Political Science
  • ISSN: 0007-1234
  • EISSN: 1469-2112
  • URL: /core/journals/british-journal-of-political-science
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