Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Urban Agenda

New York and the Feds: Mayor LaGuardia and FDR; Bush at Ground Zero; Daily News Headline During 1975 NYC Fiscal Crisis; Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union.

For information on the federal government's impact on New York City, visit our new section Focus On The Feds.
New Yorkers listening to President George W. Bush's 2004 State of the Union Address on primetime last week may have felt overlooked.

The president never once uttered the words "urban" or "city" or "New York," though he did say "Bulgaria" and "Bali." And while he talked about "September 11th" several times and referred to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, he never mentioned the place where these attacks occurred.

It was not until several days later, in an untelevised address at a conference of mayors from across the country, that he specifically acknowledged the economic struggles and issues facing many cities.

"It's not easy being a mayor," Bush toldthe gathering of mayors. "Probably a lot harder than being president. After all, I don't fill potholes or empty the trash."

Of course, his opponents have not been spending a lot of time on the real problems of cities either, at least judging by their campaigns so far. In an effort to appeal to the broadest national audience possible and the early primaries in Iowa (where agriculture is the largest industry) and in New Hampshire (where the largest city has only 107,000 people), the Democratic presidential candidates have focused little on urban issues.

When the candidates came to New York City last fall, they debated how free trade affected workers in the Midwest and oil drilling in Alaska, but did not even mention issues like housing, mass transit, and immigration.

It was not always this way. A generation ago, there was an assumption that the federal government should play a significant role in the life of American cities like New York - even if federal officials were wary of cities.

Today, there is no real urban policy agenda in Washington.

"There is no leader in the executive branch [for urban issues] and there are no committees in Congress that make it a priority," said David Rapp, editor of Congressional Quarterly, a publication with 100 reporters covering Congress. "We don't even have a reporter assigned to cover urban affairs."


The history of New York and the federal government is complex and difficult.

On one hand, the city has played a significant part in the political life of America. And to politicians, it has been an important place to gather votes and to raise funds.

The first president George Washington was sworn in at Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. In 1860, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Right Makes Might speech at Cooper Union, which solidified his Republican nomination. In the 1930's, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, working closely with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was able to funnel millions of federal dollars into the city for public housing and social service programs. More recently, former President Bill Clinton selected Harlem as a site for his office.

And much of today's New York City was built with federal money. Between the 1920s and 1960s, Robert Moses built high-rise buildings, highways, bridges, tunnels, playgrounds, and parkways with money from Washington.

At the same time, there is a history of deep anti-urban sentiment in America.

“The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “as sores do to the strength of the human body.”

As urban planner John Accordino has pointed out (in pdf format), “Jefferson’s sentiments and those of his contemporaries were translated into the fundamental law of the land," in which cities were made mere subdivisions of the states in which they were located. The states retained "ultimate financial and legal authority" over the cities, which were seen as incapable of governing themselves.


Cities continue to be seen as places of poverty, corruption, crime, and immorality. And immigrants, who traditionally first settle in urban areas, have often been viewed with suspicion. Even President Roosevelt, who was the first president to pay real attention to cities with his New Deal campaign, thought urban areas had become too large to maintain.

"Today many people are beginning to realize that there is an inherent weakness in cities which become too large for their times, and inherent strength in a wider geographic distribution of population," Roosevelt said in a speech in 1937.

In the 1960s, first as an outgrowth of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" program to eradicate poverty and then in response to rioting in neglected urban neighborhoods across the country, the nation and its political leaders seemed determined to address the problems of America's cities, and New York City's Mayor John Lindsay could become a national figure and a presidential candidate by championing an urban agenda.

But by 1975, when President Gerald Ford refused to come to New York City's aid during the fiscal crisis and the Daily News printed the now famous headline "Ford to City: Drop Dead," it wasn't only Ford whose views could be summed up this way.


Part of the shift away from a national agenda for cities is a matter of demographics. With the birth of the suburbs after World War II, and the federal financing of the interstate highway system, the cities lost population to outlying areas.

In 1960, the U.S. population was evenly divided among central cities, suburbs, and rural areas. Today, more than half of all Americans live in the suburbs and less than a third live in urban areas. And 40 years ago, New York City accounted for about 4.3 percent of the national population; today it claims only 2.7 percent.

Part of it is political. Nationally, the Republicans and Democrats both claim 45 percent of the population as loyal voters. So the battle for the White House comes down to the 10 percent of Americans known as "swing voters." Pollsters believe that most swing voters live in the suburbs.

In New York City, where Democrats outnumber Republicans four to one, some say that Democrats take the city for granted.

"Hence the decline of the urban agenda," New York Senator Charles Schumer told the New York Times. "That doesn't just hurt urban areas, it hurts America."

The move away from a national urban agenda reflects a change in policy that, some claim, actually benefits the city. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has maintained that the federal initiatives did more harm than good and burdened cities like New York with high taxes and regulations. In a 1995 speech, he argued that it was time to end the days when cities went to Washington "hat in hand."

"The old agenda was based on looking to others to solve our problems - look to Albany, look to Washington, someone will come along and bail us out," said Giuliani. "The new urban agenda should declare that we can solve our own problems, without direction from state or federal authorities."

Today, there remains disagreement about what the federal government can and should do for New York.

In his recent budget presentation (in pdf format) Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that New York City taxpayers send $11 billion more to Washington D.C. each year than they get back in services.

"When they talk about taxing and spending [in Washington]," the mayor said, "we get the taxes and they get the spending."


Last week, in an effort to draw attention to needs of cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors released an urban agenda for the presidential campaign. The report (in pdf format) focused on five critical issues:


  • Crime: Increasing funding for local anti-terrorism efforts, reforming the juvenile justice system, and providing drug treatment.
  • Transportation: Investing in mass transit, roads, and bridges.
  • Jobs: Tax incentives for small business and economic development projects.
  • Education: Funding Head Start programs, creating small schools, and funding "No Child Left Behind."
  • Healthcare: Providing coverage for children, lowering drug prices, and fighting HIV/AIDS.


President George W. Bush, who has not released a specific urban agenda yet, addressed the report and said he would increase homeland security funding by 10 percent in the next budget. He also outlined steps to create jobs, stimulate housing ownership, and serve the poor through faith-based initatives.

Four of the Democratic presidential candidates - Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards, and John Kerry - have released their specific ideas for helping cities. All four plans include an economic stimulus plan that would create jobs in urban areas and call for an increase in the minimum wage.

In addition, Wesley Clark's plan calls for an expansion of funding for housing vouchers, public transit, and cleaning up the urban environment.

Howard Dean focuses on a permanent trust fund to rehabilitate housing for people of low and moderate income, and a crackdown on predatory lenders (institutions that issue exploitatively high-interest loans to low-income people).

John Edwards aims to improve urban schools, expand after-school programs, increase housing subsidies, and reform probation regulations.

John Kerry wants to work to increase manufacturing jobs, provide job training for young people, and expand loans for small businesses and high tech companies.


Of course, New York is not just any city.

New York's economy is more diverse than most cities with Wall Street, tourism, manufacturing, the arts, and the media industry all generating jobs. The city's population has continued to grow in recent years. And New York has seen its crime rate drop to record lows; the Federal Bureau of Investigations recently declared New York "the safest large city in America."

At the same time, New York still has great poverty, the highest housing costs in the nation, the most riders of mass transportation in the country, and an overburdened school system.

"New York's agenda is similar to that of other cities except more so," said John Mollenkopf, professor at the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. "What is unique about New York is that it combines both large social burdens and great wealth."

If New York's needs do not always grab the attention of national officials, its wealth surely should.

In the last two national elections, New Yorkers gave $153 million in donations to federal candidates and national parties, nearly twice as much as the residents of any other city.

"When federal officials from outside New York come here to fundraise and tap resources of our great city," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "we should know where they stand on the issues that matter to us."


• Economy
• Education
• Mass Transit
• Health Care
• Housing
• Immigration
• Poverty
• Terrorism


While the national economy has rebounded in the last few years, New York City's has been slower to recover. In part, this is because New York City's economy and tax base is largely dependent on Wall Street; every $1 billion in Wall Street profits translates to $77 million in tax revenue for the city, according the mayor's office. The city has also struggled to recover from the economic impact of September 11.

Just how Washington can best help New York City's economy is a point of debate.

Some argue that federal tax cuts are the best way to stimulate the national and the city's economy. The Manhattan Institute estimated that President George W. Bush's federal tax cuts have kept $1 billion in the city that otherwise would have gone to Washington.

Others argue tax cuts have not helped and formulas of how government money is dispersed must be changed to recognize New York's unique needs - to create jobs, housing, and aid low-income New Yorkers. (For more, read Bush Tax Cuts and New York)

"The Republican belief is that the federal government should not be in the business of providing services to American citizens," said Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel. "They believe… those people that are less fortunate should have to rely on local and state governments."


New York City has the largest public school system in the country with over 1 million students and more than 1,100 schools.

While Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in the midst of his overhaul of New York City public school system, the current federal education policy No Child Left Behind presents unique challenges for city schools, students, and parents.

No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in January 2002, requires standards for academic achievement. Those schools that do not perform are placed on a "schools in need of improvement" list and students are entitled to transfer to a better school. If a school appears on the list for two years, low-income students are entitled to free tutoring services.

There are 347 schools on the list in New York City. (For more on how the program affects New York, read Gotham Gazette's article)

When it comes to money for New York City schools, the federal government only currently provides about 10 percent of education funding; the rest comes from state and city, both of which are struggling to close budget deficits.

In his 2004 preliminary budget, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that the city needs $400 million more from the federal government to fund the program. (For more, read Are New York's Children Left Behind?)

Health Care

There are two major government health care programs: Medicare and Medicaid.

Medicare affects people over 65 years old regardless of income and is funded by the federal government. Medicaid offers medical coverage for low-income people and is funded by federal, state, and local governments. In New York City, approximately 350,000 people are eligible for both programs.

In 2003, President George W. Bush signed into law the most sweeping changes to Medicare since the creation of program in 1965. Health experts are still divided on what these changes will mean for New York City in the long term. (For more, read New Medicare Law: Will It Hurt or Help?)

Unlike most states, New York requires local governments to pay a major portion of the Medicaid bill. New York City's costs have risen dramatically in recent years, nearly 32 percent from 1999 to 2002. By 2004, Medicaid spending is expected to cost the city over $4 billion a year, or about 13 percent of the total budget.

In his most recent budget, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would ask Washington to increase its Medicaid funding by 3 percent, an initiative that would save the city $240 million.


Affordable housing is one of the most critical issues facing New York City.

The New York City Housing Authority operates 345 public housing developments for nearly 400,000 New Yorkers and administers 87,000 "section 8" rental vouchers for low-income families.

However, in order to qualify for federal housing subsidies, New Yorkers must meet more and more requirements. Beginning January 2004, a new regulation requires 8 hours of community service for approximately 60,000 people who live in public housing. If they do not abide by the regulations, they can be evicted. (For more read Community Service Required for Housing)

At the same time in recent years, federal subsidies for low-income housing have decreased. Between 1999 and 2003, the federal subsidy for the housing authority decreased by $58 million or 6 percent, according to a report by the Independent Budget Office.

Most of the new housing initiatives offered by President George W. Bush and the Democratic presidential candidates focus on increasing homeownership. Such programs do not have as great an impact in New York City, where the cost of buying a home is high and most people rent their apartments.


New York City is the city of immigrants. Close to three million immigrants live in New York, an estimated 40 percent of the city's population.

In January 2004, President George W. Bush outlined a new immigration policy that would give temporary work visas to legal or illegal immigrants, who are willing to take a job that no American wants. The proposal would require employers to sponsor a worker and a visa would only last three years. Many immigrant advocates in New York criticized the plan, saying it would give too much power to employers and could potentially deport people after they have already worked for years.

Bush's policy comes after several years of more stringent immigration regulations, including requiring visitors from certain countries to register with the Immigration and Naturalizations Service and the U.S.A. PATRIOT Act, which gives government and law enforcement officials broader use of surveillance in an effort to fight terrorism.

"I know there's some talk in your communities about the Patriot Act," President Bush told a group of mayors last week. "We are in a new war, a different kind of war. We need to be able to share information across jurisdictional boundaries at the federal level."

Democratic presidential candidates say that they would work to reform the Patriot Act and do more to protect civil liberties.

Mass Transit

New York City is home to the nation's largest mass transit system in the country. Metropolitan Transportation Authority subways, buses, and railroads carry 2.4 billion passengers a year - or one in every three mass transit users in the nation.

In December 2003, the federal government came through for the city on the issue of transportation in lower Manhattan.

Department of Transportation Secretary announced $2.85 billion in grants to build a new PATH terminal, connect 12 subway lines in a new Fulton Street subway station, and replace the South Ferry subway terminal.

And some New Yorkers are still hoping for more. Last fall, Congress announced the Transportation Equity Act, which calls for $375 billion over six years to transportation efforts. The plan would bring an estimated $8.5 billion for public transit and $11 billion for highway funding in New York. City officials estimate that the package could generate 70,000 jobs for New Yorkers

However, some members of Congress would reportedly like to funnel more money to highway projects in the South and Midwest.


In 1996, the federal government passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, commonly known as welfare reform. The legislation overhauled the nation's public assistance programs.

In 2003, President George W. Bush proposed an extension of the act with added requirements. Under the President's plan recipients would be required to work 40 hours per week, the average funding for a family on public assistance would be increased, and state and local governments would consolidate food stamps, housing, and education programs.

While welfare rolls have decreased drastically in recent years, there are signs that the poor are not finding jobs or the help they need.

Homelessness in New York City is at a record high. The number of single mothers who are unemployed has risen and hourly pay has actually decreased since 2000, according to a report by the Community Service Society.

The city must also do more, advocates say, to create job-training centers. (For more, read Is Congress About To Shake Up Job Training?)

At the same time, an estimated 800,000 New York City residents who are entitled to food stamps are not receiving them. Advocates say that New York City's food stamp offices are not complying with federal law or even with their own policies. This costs the city nearly a billion dollars in lost federal aid. (For more, read Food Stamps Not Reaching Everybody Who Deserves Them)


In the past decade, New York City has endured two terrorist attacks and many believe remains a primary target in the future. While the national terror alert level has fluctuated, New York City has remained on a high level of alert since September 11, 2001.

In March 2003, the New York Police Department launched a new anti-terrorism initiative called Operation Atlas to increase security at the city's tunnels, ports, subways, and landmarks. The plan costs an estimated $5 million a week.

In the past two years, the federal Department of Homeland Security has provided the city with $180 million to fund antiterrorism programs, a result of complaints from New York lawmakers that urban areas were most vulnerable. Still they say the federal funding has not even come close to covering New York City's expenses.

New York currently receives fewer homeland security dollars per person than 48 other states and American Samoa.

"Who would believe that New York City - still the terrorists' number one target - has spent a billion dollars out of its own pocket for security, but gets only a fraction from the federal government?" said Representative Carolyn Maloney. "But that is the sad truth."


Related Links

New York Urban League
New York Urban Republican Platform
US Conference of Mayors

Presidential Candidates

Republican Candidates

George W. Bush

Democratic Candidates

Wesley Clark
• urban agenda

Howard Dean
• urban agenda

John Edwards
• urban agenda

Richard Gephardt

John Kerry
• urban agenda

Dennis Kucinich

Joe Lieberman

Carol Moseley Braun

Al Sharpton

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