Letter from Governor Tom Wolf
Letter from the Governor
For cities, it’s not a level playing field
By Gov. Tom Wolf
Helping older cities address their challenges isn’t just a city challenge; it’s a Commonwealth challenge. That’s because the challenges older cities face are challenges for all Pennsylvanians. All of us need our cities to succeed and flourish.
Let me start with a little background. Up until a few years ago when I entered a career in politics, I was a business owner in York, Pa. As a business owner in York, I had a big interest in seeing York succeed. I was involved in a number of York-centered civic organization.
Most prominent among them was Better York, a CEO organization devoted to the revitalization of the City of York. The members represented different sectors of the economy, but we were united in the belief that our region could not survive a declining and decaying city at its heart. And that’s exactly what York was doing – declining.
Like every other third class city in Pennsylvania, York was struggling. Its struggles looked a lot like the struggles other Pennsylvania cities were facing. But why was York struggling?
The problems with urban areas stem from failures in the broader society in which those cities operate. First, cities are constantly assaulted by policies that hamstring them. Second, cities suffer from social imperfections. And finally, our older cities suffer from a lack of imagination.
First, the public policy environment in a place like Pennsylvania is not at all kind to cities.
One strong example of this is our public education system in Pennsylvania. It is an unfortunate truth that Pennsylvania’s public education system relies on local funding for its existence.
This means that for the most part, education funding is most generous to America’s most prosperous communities and of course least generous to its least prosperous citizens. The greater your school’s challenges, the less funding we give you.
The Commonwealth ranks 45th in the nation in terms of the state’s share of funding for basic education. This, combined with the small sizes of Pennsylvania’s school districts leads to very large fiscal disparities between school districts.
Poorer school districts get far less than we need them to get. As a result, children in these poorer school districts get less of an education than we need them to get and as a result, the areas of concentrated poverty have schools with fewer resources and higher taxes.
We could do a lot to level the tax playing field by making the funding of public education fairer. And we could accomplish this simply by having the commonwealth pick up a bigger share of the funding burden from the local levels. All local municipalities would benefit from this change. Cities would benefit the most.
Second, social pathologies have harmed cities.
There is a clear pattern of racial segregation in the sprawling pattern of metropolitan growth. For example, in 1990, the African American population of the York metro region was 2.9% of the total population and almost 82% of them live in the City of York.
By almost any statistical measure, this made York one of the most segregated metro areas in the nation. As a consequence, to be poor and a person of color was very different than being poor and white in the York metro region. That’s because white poverty is evenly distributed throughout the region.
Six out of seven poor white families send their kids to middle-class schools. By contrast two out of three African American and Hispanic children go to schools where the poverty rate is above 60%. This pattern does not appear to be random. Race does still play a role in shaping living and migration patterns in America. And it has led to patterns of metropolitan growth that has had a negative effect on the economies of cities.
Finally, urban areas face a challenge of imagination.
Too many Americans have come to feel that cities are a bad bet, a throwback to a different era. The goal of the typical American is to inhabit the suburban space. So pervasive is this idea that it has come to be regarded as fact. The form of the city remains relevant today.
My wife and I rent an apartment in Philadelphia and it’s liberating that we can walk – not drive – out of our apartment and find a restaurant, supermarket, retail store, museum, theater, or a nice park within a short walk. No suburb offers that kind of convenience. Nor do most suburbs offer the diversity of population, experiences, or opportunity that most cities can offer.
So what do we do to improve the lot of cities given these challenges?
Here are my suggestions of policies we should consider:
- Regional land use planning
- Zoning ordinances and planning codes that allow mixed use, high density communities
- Urban growth boundaries like Portland, Oregon
- Inclusive zoning like Montgomery County, Maryland
- Change public infrastructure investment strategy to promote redevelopment of old settlements
- Strike a better balance between highway and mass transit funding
- Consolidate and restore old industrial sites for redevelopment
- Reform local tax policies starting with the state taking a bigger share of funding for public education
In the end, the struggle for our cities will depend on the outcome of the competition between suburbs and cities. The outcome will largely be determined by the extent to which that competition is a fair one.
(Thomas Westerman Wolf was inaugurated Pennsylvania’s 47th Governor on Jan. 20, 2015).