Urban America, a term almost synonymous with minority and black America, is in crisis. That comes as a surprise to no one, of course. Urban life, inner-city life more particularly, is fraught with perils and starved of opportunity. Many of the themes of these crises are well known to us: high rates of crime, low rates of employment, inadequate access to healthcare, contentious relationships with police officers and governing authorities. The list goes on and on. Solutions to these crises however are not often easy to come across, so let me present a few here.
That an absence of broad-based economic opportunity is fundamental to the struggles of the urban centers of America, whether we are talking Detroit, south-side Chicago, or my own inner city Los Angeles, is hard to argue. Lack of income and financial independence is central to the instability of families and the unraveling of communities. Travel my home streets of Inglewood, Los Angeles and Watts, and in the midst of those who are making it okay, we find depressed and itinerant people struggling with an overburdened public transportation system, unkempt roads, a polluted environment and worn commercial properties serving as the ailing backbone of an economy tenuously held together by EBT.
How to fix the employment crisis? Reforming welfare and unemployment spending to couple these dollars with educational programs and occupational training that can turn the long term unemployed from frustrated recipients of government assistance to skilled and qualified students and trainees is a good place to start. Our current welfare and unemployment programs do little to provide for successful transitioning from dependence to employment. Many people who receive unemployment remain on unemployment for a long time, and by the time their benefits are near discontinuation they find themselves seeking employment with an unattractive gap on their resumes and a lack of confidence that comes from not having participated in the workplace for an extended period. All of these things plague the inner city unemployed, making them undesirable to employers. Welfare and unemployment reform along these lines would go a long way to solving these problems.
A long way, that is, but not far enough. For while it is vital to incentivize education and training these things can only help black and inner city communities take advantage of the broader opportunities available to them. But if jobs are not prevalent in the inner cities, and they are not, than the urban population has to seek opportunity where it lies, and often it lies very far from our homes in the cities. That requires travel, and because gas is expensive and many poor blacks and Latinos do not have cars, we are left to rely on public transportation systems that are often underfunded, overcrowded, unpleasant and even dangerous. Funding public transport systems whose routes are effectively coordinated to deliver people from the cities safely, comfortably and expeditiously to those areas where job and career opportunities are prevalent is important. This would make it more possible for the unemployed to find jobs, to actually be able to get to those jobs and to get to school and daycare as well. Ultimately, as these measures enhance urban economies these municipalities would have more tax dollars to invest in the communities as a result.
While there is not room here to give a detailed account of the inadequacies of inner city healthcare, both in terms of access and quality, as a fundamental principle it is clear to me that the more we can expand competition between providers, the more affordable care will become a reality for people everywhere, including the urban communities. One step in that direction would be to do as former President Bill Clinton and others have suggested, and allow insurance companies to compete across state lines. Certain features of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act will also help to expand access, such as mandating the coverage of people with pre-existing conditions and extending the time children are available to remain on their parent’s plans. Other elements of the ACA however, including coverage mandates, threaten to raise costs and thereby limit access. On the local level then it is important for community groups to do what they can. (The First Ladies Health Day in Los Angeles, sponsored by Walgreens in association with a wide range of inner city churches, is bringing a diverse array of healthcare services to the urban poor in Los Angeles. It’s a great example of what the community and the business sector can accomplish when working together.)
The inner city suffers from many problems; but a healed economy is the first step in solving many of them. With the right policies in place, inner cities across America can be transformed into citadels of opportunity, empowering black America to take the reigns of its own economic future.