A new nudge for the Sunbelt -- but don't forget the rest of America

Back in the 19th century, when most Americans lived east of the Mississippi River and north of the Mason-Dixon line, federal policy directly encouraged migration to the still hostile regions of the West. In fact, through such programs as homesteading (40 acres and a mule), government largess to the transcontinental railroads, and federal funds for state land-grant colleges, "go west, young man" became a rallying cry for millions of the more adventuresome.

Thus there is some irony in those aspects of the draft report of the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties that deal with the whole question of urban America and migration to the "Sunbelt" of the South and Southwest. The report urges Americans to accept the inevitability of the decline of cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest and encourage migration to the Sunbelt.

If accepted as national policy at some point, such as by the new administration and 97th Congress (both of which owe much of their electoral clout to the Sunbelt), the urban recommendations would add up to a significant departure from many federal programs during the past several decades, and a return to the official "go west" policies of the last century. For during the past several decades federal measures have been designed to help shore up the older industrial cities of the East and Midwest losing firms and population to the Sunbelt.

Would the draft report recommendation add up to an "abandonment" of older Eastern industrial cities, as some Northern lawmakers now argue? One commission staff member saus this is not the intention at all. There should still be "aid to cities that are declining," he says. But would the Northern-tier states be well served by the proposed policy? According to Charles Bishop, who is president of the University of Houston and chairman of the commission's urban affairs subcommittee, the government has "followed a policy of trying to keep people where they are." He adds: "You should let the market function and then assist people to adjust."

The report found the decline of cities in the industrial heartland to be part of an inevitable process, "the emergence of post-industrial urban America." The report concedes that there will be "traumatic consequences" for Northern cities but argues, in effect, that federal policy must support the dynamics of the current movement of Americans to the South, Southwwest, and West, a vast migration clearly underscored by the 1980 census.

Preliminary census figures show many older industrial cities like Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore losing at least 10 percent of their population. By contrast, Sunbelt cities such as San Diego and Houston grew by 20 percent or better during the past decade.

There is little dispute about the trend, nor even the reasons. Because of a mix of more favorable tax and labor conditions, not to mention generally more hospitable weather, industries have scrambled to relocate south and west. Families have followed in their wake. US lawmakers will want to carefully weigh existing federal urban policies. At the same time, they will want to ensure that any federal encouragement of migration is undertaken without overburdening the already booming cities of the Sunbelt with the very urban problems that now characterize much of the North. Helping a family relocate may be one thing, but there must be definite jobs, or possibility of work, on the other end.

Also, lawmakers must pose hard questions about the role of the older industrial belt in the America of the late 20th century. Members of the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition already complain that federal policies encourage migration out of their region. Nor should it be overlooked that federal policy in the past has often been designed to bolster ailing parts of the US as much as to support the "growth" areas. Many of the New Deal programs of the 1930s, for example, such as rural electrification and the Tennessee Valley Authority, were designed to aid the less populated South and West.

The national commission has produced intriguing new ideas about US urban policy. Congress, and the incoming Reagan administration, will want to give the conclusions close scrutiny to ensure that whatever new policies are adopted are the types of balanced measures that will ensure the well-being and growth of the entire nation.

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