TOPICS > Politics

Cities Feel the Pinch

October 13, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Seattle’s downtown food bank is housed deep inside the Tony Pike Place Market. Merchants donate surplus commodities; so do local charities. But the bulk of the food is bought with federal grant money. Manager Jack Henning is nervously waiting to see what will happen to this program after Congress finishes cutting the federal budget.

MR. BEARDEN: How many people do you serve here in general?

JACK HENNING, Downtown Food Bank: Say about four thousand to forty-two hundred.

MR. BEARDEN: Will some of those people go hungry if there are any cuts in this program?

JACK HENNING: I believe they will. I believe a lot of them are not getting nutritious diets now, even with the food banks.

MR. BEARDEN: Henning isn’t the only social service provider who’s nervous. Officer John Gray is assigned to patrol the High Point Public Housing Project full-time. He’s part of a federally-funded community policing program designed to combat drugs and gangs.

OFFICER JOHN GRAY: Had complaints about narcotics activity from the neighbors and–

MR. BEARDEN: Residents and Housing Authority administrators both believe having officers like Gray on the job is extremely effective.

WOMAN: I saw part of it. This kid, Billy, did it.

MR. BEARDEN: But he may be reassigned if federal dollars disappear. Even Head Start, widely praised on both sides of the political fence, is facing substantial cuts.

JEAN CARPENTER, Seattle Human Services Coalition: I love the Pledge of Allegiance, and I love the part that says, liberty and justice for all. Excuse me. This is not liberty and justice for all.

MR. BEARDEN: Community activists like Jean Carpenter, who runs the Seattle Human Services Coalition, are outraged.

JEAN CARPENTER: Seventy percent of the budget cuts that are coming down are targeted to low-income and vulnerable population, 70 percent of those cuts, okay. Funding for food stamps will be cut by 23 percent. That means that nearly 30,000 people in King County might be hungry because of that.

SPOKESPERSON: Our goal is to help you to become reemployed at the minimum 80 percent of your wage at dislocation.

MR. BEARDEN: Programs for the poor aren’t the only target. Retraining and reemployment programs like this, which have been valuable for workers laid off in Seattle’s volatile aerospace industry, also faced the budget axe.

MAYOR NORM RICE, Seattle: Well, we estimate in the city of Seattle just by the House budget that we’re going to lose 15 to 20 million right off the top of our budget.

MR. BEARDEN: Norm Rice is the mayor of Seattle and the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

MAYOR NORM RICE: The problem that I see is this kind of mean-spiritedness that everyone’s captured that anyone who begins to defend or anyone who begins to articulate a, a more compassionate–and some kind of program is either a bleeding heart, spendthrift liberal, someone who is out of tune with where the world is going.

REP. JENNIFER DUNN, (R) Washington: Well, that’s the kind of rhetoric that I’ve often heard. If he were to watch the sort of debate that’s taking place here, he’d see that the Republican Party is not without compassion. We worry as much as anybody else about the programs.

MR. BEARDEN: Republican Rep. Jennifer Dunn represents suburban and rural communities near Seattle.

REP. JENNIFER DUNN: Some of the programs that Mayor Rice is concerned about I too am concerned about. For example, Head Start is a program I’ve always favored, but why is it, we’ve got to ask ourselves, the funding for Head Start has increased $190 billion over the last six years and the people that that program serves have only increased 36 percent. That’s the kind of question we have to ask.

MR. BEARDEN: Dunn and her Republican colleagues are pursuing a policy of replacing a lot of direct federal funding with block grants to the states. But Seattle officials say that means the state legislature would control who gets the money. And they don’t necessarily trust the legislature to do the right thing.

MAYOR NORM RICE: They’re trying to say, well, it’s not our problem anymore, it’s the states’ problem. And what we’re saying in cities is, wait a minute, remember how all this started with federalism was that states didn’t assume the responsibility they had. There’s nothing in the federal dialogue right now that demands accountability for a state to meet a national standard for meeting a person’s human condition.

MR. BEARDEN: Republican Hal Mills is a retired oil company executive who definitely won’t be out campaigning for maintaining social service spending.

HAL MILLS, Retired Oil Company Executive: These bureaucrats that have made careers out of these social programs are going to scream like crazy. And that’s–

MR. BEARDEN: And you don’t believe the screams?

HAL MILLS: I don’t believe the screams, no.

MR. BEARDEN: Mills’s views are clearly in the majority in Washington State these days. Like-minded voters recently elected Republicans to seven of Washington State’s nine congressional seats. Just three years ago, eight out of nine were Democrats.

HAL MILLS: We’re fed up with imposed social programs by liberals who have–who have imposed these things to the point of restricting the American dream, restricting freedom of movement. And so I really feel that this is just a fallout from this attitude of fed-upness with large government.

MR. BEARDEN: Mills’s political philosophy is also partially reflected in his choice of a place to live. Bear Creek is one of a growing number of up-scale enclaves where access is controlled by a gate and a security guard. Besides the golf course, Mills says one reason he moved here was to distance himself from the failures of big government, federal, state, and city. Rep. Dunn says a lot of her constituents are like Mills.

REP. JENNIFER DUNN: I think the reason people are moving into suburban communities and into rural areas like many of which I represent is that they are tired of paying their money day after day, week after week, year after year, through their paycheck, through their income tax, for programs that are not serving them and programs in which they recognize a great deal of wasted funds. I think the frustration level is very high. They want to get out of some of these urban areas that aren’t using money wisely, and that’s what I think is the effect.

MR. BEARDEN: Gated communities like Bear Creek are symbolic of what some believe is an even bigger problem for many American cities than federal cuts, the accelerating psychological abandonment of cities by suburbanites. Gated developments are on the rise all across the country, particularly in the South and Far West. Some see them as a disengagement from citizenship, itself. Dr. Edward Blakely is a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California and author of a recent study on gated housing developments.

EDWARD BLAKELY, University of Southern California: In large cities and small cities and so on, for planners, for members of the city council, for people who are socially responsible and want people to be engaged, they view this as a problem, not a problem of the gate but a problem of social retreat.

HAL MILLS: I think they got the whole concept convoluted. In our community here, we have all kinds of people. We have minorities in this community. We have–but all of them are of a certain economic level that can afford to live here. And I don’t think that people need to sacrifice for what they worked hard for to accommodate some social structure that they’re not interested in.

MR. BEARDEN: Karen Daubert feels very differently. She avidly believes government has an obligation to help the downtrodden. A dental hygienist, she spends a great deal of her free time in community activities, like planning the revitalization of blighted neighborhoods.

KAREN DAUBERT, Dental Hygienist: I was born and raised in Seattle and feel very strongly that I want to contribute to my neighborhood. And I absolutely love the overused word “diversity,” I absolutely love the community, and I love going to meetings and having people from all walks of life.

MR. BEARDEN: Daubert’s husband, Jared Smith, worries that people who live in suburban isolation may lose their empathy with those less fortunate.

JARED SMITH, Transportation Engineer: I ride the bus to work, and as I go through my bus route, it goes through various sections of the city on its way downtown, and there’s a huge amount of diversity, and eventually we get to Skid Row, and you have people that are drunk. It helps you to empathize if you’re around a diversity of people when things come up, like welfare reform. You can easily, if you’re out in your enclave, say, I don’t care about that, because I don’t deal with that day to day.

MR. BEARDEN: Smith also believes in civic commitment. On this day in September, he was a poll watcher in a local election, where voters rejected a $400 million Center City park and housing development proposal called the Seattle Commons. Parks are being built in suburban communities like Klahanie, East of Seattle, but they’re private, accessible only to the people who live there. Smith and others fear that the philosophy behind privatization of what has traditionally been public property could lead to the balkanization of America. Scott Bufkin is a software engineer who moved to Klahanie seven years ago. He’s now the president of the Home Owner’s Association. Bufkin says Klahanie’s private park isn’t any more sinister than neighborhood amenities found in many cities, large and small.

SCOTT BUFKIN, Software Engineer: No. I think that this is just a smaller version of the same thing that happens on a city level. There are pools that are provided by the city for people who live in the city. And if you don’t live in the city, you’re not allowed to go to that pool.

MR. BEARDEN: Bufkin also thinks that all of these trends, private parks, gated neighborhoods, and rejection of big public projects, stems from a sense of frustration with big government.

SCOTT BUFKIN: I think that people feel because government is so large and so far removed from them that the decisions that get made on that kind of level don’t make a lot of sense to them. But when decisions get made or rules apply on a very localized level, and we’ve got 2500 homes or dwellings in Klahanie, that’s a much smaller scale. And that’s something I think people can deal with. It’s something they can get their arms around.

MR. BEARDEN: Urban planners think people are pursuing what they’ve always pursued, the classic ideal of a village, responsible and responsive to its residents. It’s just that in the 1990s, many of the villages are becoming much more private places.