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The New York Sun


How To Recover

September 04, 2007

By Edward Glaeser

Democrats with an itch for Pennsylvania Avenue real estate recently have trooped down to New Orleans to remind us that the city is still poor, still vulnerable to the vicissitudes of hurricanes, and only partially rebuilt. They have suggested a dizzying array of expensive new federal projects for the region, like light rail lines between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and Community Mental Health Block Grants. Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf region and damaged the Bush presidency.

Now, the Democrats seem to think that the problem with rebuilding New Orleans is that we just haven't spent enough on the right kind of place-oriented aid. So far, more than $114 billion has been allotted for the relief effort, which is almost $100,000 for every man, woman, and child in the New Orleans metropolitan area. The problem is not that we are not spending enough, but that we are engaged in low return spending on structures instead of high return investing in people.

President Bush got us on the wrong path of favoring place over people when he declared "this great city will rise again." The Democrats have echoed this sentiment. Barack Obama promises "to rebuild now, stronger than ever." Hillary Clinton argues that "rebuilding New Orleans is not a local obligation, it is an American obligation."

Wrong. Federal policy does not have an obligation to see that cities rise again—not Buffalo, not Detroit, not New Orleans. Federal policy has an obligation to see that the people of America enjoy as much freedom and opportunity as possible. Federal attempts to rebuild declining cities areas are quixotic, inefficient, and unlikely to help the poor. Spending billions on light rail in New Orleans or upstate New York may make for good stump speeches, but the people of these regions would be better off if they were given cash or fully portable housing vouchers rather than boondoggle projects.

Rebuilding New Orleans is idealistic because it is nigh impossible for the federal government to overrule the economic forces that drive the fortunes of cities. One hundred and sixty five years ago, New Orleans' remarkable location on the mouth of the Mississippi made it the premier port of the South and the third largest city in America. Changing patterns of trade, mechanization, and containerization meant that the port could no longer anchor a large city, and New Orleans has been shedding population since 1960. The people who left have gone to more dynamic, entrepreneurial places and there is no reason why the federal government should want to stop people from leaving the poverty of a declining New Orleans.

Rebuilding the structures of New Orleans delivers little value per dollar spent because the Federal government is not good at delivering bricks and mortar and transit. These projects are enormously expensive, and seem to invite waste and corruption. Moreover, much of this spending seems to do more for real estate interests than for the truly disadvantaged. Over the last 50 years, we have spent many billions of dollars on urban renewal projects that now look like exercises in foolish futility.

It is not that governments don't matter for urban success, but the important governments are local. New York's post-1980 renaissance owes much to improvements in public safety. Good schools also are an important ingredient in local growth. But schools and safety can't be run from Washington. Although the would-be rebuilders of New Orleans seem to think that the Federal government can provide these things by building expensive new school buildings, which will accomplish little. Furthermore, any federal attempt to bring cities back depends on good local support. By at least one measure, Louisiana has long vied with Mississippi to be the most corrupt state in the country.

I could get enthusiastic if the Democrats offered a plan that would make New Orleans a model for a new, more sensible war on poverty. Such a plan might start with devoting more resources to early childhood interventions, like Head Start, that focus on providing math and reading skills, nutrition, and health care to preschoolers. We also might fund a regional school voucher program, and support the transition from high school to community colleges and four-year programs.

Any sensible anti-poverty program would focus on helping the poor to escape the concentrated distress of declining cities. This is why it does not make any sense spending billions of dollars to pull people back to New Orleans. Money would be far better used on portable housing vouchers that could be tickets to places of opportunity. But the first step is for everyone to recognize that the real needs of people must come before the myths of rebuilding places.

Original Source:



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