Leveling the playing field starts with a common language for improvement

In the great game of who’s ahead, who’s behind and who’s catching up, it’s increasingly apparent to all of us that how you are doing depends greatly on where you start. Maryland is no exception.

No level playing field has some of us starting at first-and-goal and others pushed back to their own end zone. Different barriers to success mean different outcomes. Yet for some the concept of the “level playing field” provides the illusion of fairness in our society. But comparative wealth, a generational matter as well as a geographical factor, turns level to bumpy, or even impassible.

Recent research has demonstrated that even as the income gap is slowly closing between the haves and have-nots of our society, it’s the wealth gap that is making the difference. Minorities and women start from behind the financial eight ball where wealth is concerned because, in property-obsessed America, wealth is so tied up in home ownership (renting is much more prevalent in other rich societies). And private sector red-lining has combined with federal and state government regulations and practices right up until the 1960s and later to perpetuate the disadvantages keeping minorities, especially African-Americans, on the outside looking in. Residential segregation and disparities in housing prices — not housing quality itself — that have kept that wealth gap yawning stemmed directly from that one-two punch. Chapter and verse on this sorry history can be found in Richard Rothstein’s 2017 The Color of Law.

The latest example of how those who start behind have to scuffle not to get further back is, oddly, in the otherwise good news of an actual breakthrough in infrastructure spending — the help for depleted localities that Biden just signed but Trump couldn’t get around to getting around to, despite having Infrastructure Week just about every week he was in office.

Yet unless the Biden rollout takes a different path than traditionally happens when public money rolls out to local governments, a severe disadvantage may continue to afflict rural areas and other small or underdeveloped local governments — just the places where voters are already inclined to favor Trumpist “solutions” for our deficits.

POLITICO took a look at this problem on the national level in late December:

"Washington is providing hundreds of billions of dollars to develop clean energy, eliminate contaminated drinking water and help communities withstand floods, storms and other calamities driven by climate change....Many supporters’ big fear: Those who most need the cash will be unable to navigate the federal bureaucracy required to obtain it. [Federal] agencies are under enormous pressure to use much of this money to revive communities at the forefront of the energy transition — including struggling rural coal towns and inner-city communities of color that disproportionately suffer from pollution."

In Maryland, for instance, the skill differential between even Montgomery and Prince George’s counties (where missing HUD deadlines is a commonplace) could make a difference in how Marylanders fare when it comes to attracting money from the Biden stash.

The fact is: there has been a certain path-dependency putting its shape on even the most hopeful social spending programs, ever since the Great Society and a perceived failure of local community initiatives. In President Lyndon Johnson’s programs, the Community Development Block Grants were administered by local community committees enabled by legislation in a federalist framework. The Ford Foundation’s support of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation model — “his core approach was to find home-grown leaders, and unite local residents to overcome their own problems” — put wings under the development of these local CDBG committees. The Great Society approach stressed “‘maximum feasible,’ ‘widespread,’ or at the least ‘adequate’ participation of a project’s area residents in its urban improvement schemes,” a Harvard think tank study of the era said.

Attempts to tackle what was then seen as an “urban” (read: Black people) crisis on an emergency basis probably put too much pressure on regional planners to stand up the local boards too quickly.

Thanks to Richard Nixon and the skepticism of elite Democratic analysts like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, community control became synonymous with “poverty pimps” and other hustler images whose ethnicity was baked into the stereotypes — and made it easier for even well-meaning liberals to throw up their hands and look the other way at the enforced persistence of residential segregation.

Even before the sabotage of the Nixon years, the “Whiz Kid” elite bean-counters of the Pentagon imposed metrics on the incommensurable bottom-up community development boards. “Deeply unhappy with the rowdy community action organizations and always drawn to big, bold, transformational-sounding approaches, Lyndon Johnson was unable to resist [Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara’s techno-planning management system,” the Harvard study said.

In the Carter administration, local CDBG committees waned as planners became disenchanted with community control — even though the Carter social planning framework built more and more “Regional Planning Councils” that became littered with local political figures instead of community activists.

Ronald Reagan, genial front man for a gang of wealthy capitalists who found racist tropes and residential segregation not only preferable but profitable, completed the destruction of the community-control impetus of the Great Society.

All the while, the language of community improvement became the province of elitists and specialists. Only big, well-staffed governments can easily talk the talk when it comes to converting government largesse — at any level — to community rescue and improvement, which is what the Biden infrastructure bills are intended to forward.

Organic community improvement from the bottom up is still practiced and successful but is coming more frequently by way of organic community groups — Stomp Out Slumlords comes to mind.

Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore are starting from behind because those towns and counties don’t have the capacity to go out and secure the funds that will be available. Big counties and, say, Baltimore City, on the other hand, have planning staffs primed to present mouth-watering infrastructure schemes to attract the federal funds. That’s always been the advantage: Big government can talk to big government in the language it best understands.

The Pew Trust’s local-government blog, Stateline, has a good outline of the continuing disadvantage that those smaller governments will face unless either the state government offers real — not lip-service — expertise on this matter, or the feds do a better job of directing states in distributing project funds equitably.

“In theory, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law that President Joe Biden signed last week should provide a huge boost. Much of that money will flow to state governments, with the most populous states getting the largest amounts. Then cities, towns and counties will compete for grants and loans, with state officials deciding who gets what. Federal officials will maintain control of about $120 billion, part of which will be doled out through competitive grants.

But rural leaders worry that they lack the staff and matching dollars to compete with bigger cities for their fair share of the bounty.

… Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, observed that ‘in many circumstances there isn’t the internal infrastructure to accept federal money, develop ideas for how it could be spent, develop regulations for how it should be spent, and go ahead and implement it.’

The solution is better coordination between state planners and local governments, modulated for their relative sizes. Maryland’s state government, which ought to be paying attention to the concerns of the Shore and mountain west of the state (it is, after all, Larry Hogan’s base), should give some real focus to making sure those areas get their fair share of what the feds will offer.

Maryland is a wealthy state and a “donor” state, sending tax revenue to states that are vehemently pro-Trump and claim to be self-reliant but routinely gobble up federal funds, as Paul Krugman reminds us.

Gov. Hogan’s remedy for good financial times, since he is trying to walk his Republican-but-never-Trump tightrope, is fattening up the rainy day fund and then railing against federal spending. As a result, help on this will have to come from the General Assembly in January — even though the legislators are largely part of the same elite culture, keyed only to the language spoken by mega-governments to one another.

Maryland will get nearly $7 billion to spend in the recently signed infrastructure bill, and whatever survives in the now-delayed Build Back Better bill — focusing on human needs — should bring an even bigger chunk. How hard is it to get ready to spend a big-time gift card? Language and framing matter.

Activists must keep an eye on the waning days of the Hogan administration and the General Assembly’s last pre-election session and make sure not only material resource equity but the language in which equitable programs are facilitated are both better distributed.

A version of this article was published in the Progressive Maryland BlogSpace on Nov. 23.

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