The promise and perils of going local

August 16, 2016 Tracy Steffes
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In Go Local, Bruce Katz urges the next president to empower public, private, and civic actors to design and pursue policies at the local level as a way to sidestep broken government at the state and federal levels. There is much to like about this vision of the “New American Localism” and Katz’s concrete, clear-eyed recommendations. Localism has certainly been a font of creative experimentation and reform energy in the past.

But it also worth remembering that there are tradeoffs and that localism can foster inequalities and exclusions. We ought to be especially cautious not to deepen the place-based inequalities that already exist across metropolitan areas, fueled in part by earlier federal policies. We should approach the New American Localism with caution and with an eye to the lessons of the past. 

Two examples help illustrate some of these cautions. First, public education offers a window into some of the strengths and limits of localism. During the Progressive Era, bottom-up reform helped expand and transform public schooling. City school districts partnered with civic organizations to pioneer experiments such as vocational education classes, kindergartens, and school health services. They also worked with reformers outside the schools to reshape curriculum, governance, and organization of urban schools.

Experiments in a handful of schools or cities became models and were expanded within districts, adopted by other places, and even incorporated into state or federal policy. Localism was a source of dynamic energy and innovation, and the local character of the schools helped communities to invest literally and figuratively. 

Yet this mode of bottom-up development meant that reform occurred unevenly depending on the resources, politics, and interest of communities. As Americans grew increasingly concerned about these inequalities in the following decades, they developed policies such as state minimum standards and equalization aid to lift up the poorest schools or target marginalized students without restricting more advantaged ones. These policies eased some of the most extreme disparities but left intact considerable inequality between places. 

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 gave federal aid to districts for disadvantaged students based on these assumptions. Federal aid was designed to help urban districts with large and growing concentrations of low-income students and greater educational needs by stimulating local provision of new services and experiments. But the results were disappointing.

Evaluation studies in the first five years showed not only disappointing academic gains for most programs but also revealed that many cash-strapped districts used the additional funds to offset other costs rather than provide new services targeted to disadvantaged students as the law intended. When the federal government subsequently tightened the rules to try to ensure this aid reached its target, it prompted outcries of federal intrusion and stifling inflexibility.

Even where experimental programs proved valuable, the fiscal constraints of urban districts made scaling them up or adopting them elsewhere difficult. By the late 1960s, the inequality between urban and suburban districts was too great to overcome with piecemeal extra spending, and local innovation could not compensate for structural disadvantages of urban districts.

In another example, urban renewal and redevelopment policies in the decades after World War II offer additional cautions about the ways in which federally subsidized local projects could deepen inequality within and between places. The federal government subsidized highway building, public housing, urban renewal and redevelopment, and infrastructure projects such as sewers and water that aided cities and subsidized suburban development.

Local officials, working with and through state governments to apply for funds and in cooperation with private developers, decided which projects to pursue and where to locate them. These decisions were highly political ones about who would bear the costs and reap the benefits. They also often reflected the interests of politically powerful groups who used the projects to privilege downtown business interests and white middle-class residential neighborhoods. 

In the midst of racial conflicts over space in the postwar city, the projects were also used to deliberately bolster segregation in both the North and South. Black neighborhoods in cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Miami were razed to claim land for private commercial development and upper middle-class neighborhoods in the name of economic revitalization. This pattern was so pronounced that critics began to call urban renewal “Negro removal.” Federal rules mandating plans for replacement housing were not well enforced, and many of the displaced residents were channeled into public or low-cost housing in other poor, segregated neighborhoods.

Local city officials built highways to enhance suburban access to the city while protecting the color line, sometimes physically dividing black and white neighborhoods and often targeting black neighborhoods for its path. They also took advantage of federal aid to construct public housing and locate it primarily within poor, racially segregated neighborhoods. Most suburban localities refused to build public or subsidized housing altogether. Claiming the right to define their local communities and protect their character, many suburbs used zoning to prohibit low and moderate income housing which ensured poverty remained concentrated in the city.     

These examples suggest that although localism can foster experimentation, innovation, and community investment, it does not always or necessarily do these things. Localism can be parochial, exclusionary, and territorial. It can be used to bolster the power of the majority and the interests of the powerful at the expense of others and exclude those without leverage from decision-making. It can reinforce boundaries and deepen inequalities within and between places. 

Therefore, if the next president takes up the challenge to go local, she or he should consider how to capitalize on the energy of localism while not exacerbating inequality. This means instituting oversight and accountability mechanisms that ensure widespread community participation in decisions about particular projects and the overall distribution of funds. It also means thinking about how to avoid further entrenching local boundaries by promoting regional approaches and finding ways to connect unequal localities in the metropolitan area together.   

Tracy Steffes is Associate Professor of Education and History at Brown University. Her research interests include education history and policy, metropolitan development, state-building and social policy. She was a Miller Center National Fellow in 2004-2005.