The contemporary system of federalism in this country, a product of more than two centuries of action, inaction and political evolution, frequently raises questions about the proper locus of control for a particular kind of public policy.
In some areas (civil rights, for example), the federal government has well-established authority to intervene when it has been established that individuals’ rights have been violated. This is absolutely clear when the violation of rights is the result of actions intended to do harm to those whose rights have been violated. It can be less clear when the adverse effect on rights is a fact, but is not clearly a result of actions intended to have that effect.
For almost one hundred years now, the federal government has used the power of the purse to entice governments to comply with federal policy priorities where the federal authority to mandate such compliance has been absent or questionable. The care for the indigent, education and transportation all are replete with illustrations of this practice. Uncle Sam tells the states or localities, “I have millions (or billions) of dollars I’d like to give you, and all you have to do is follow a few simple rules . . .”
Of course, “few” and “simple” are in the eye of the beholder.
Perhaps the most recent federal foray into the use of financial inducements to achieve federal policy goals was announced earlier this month by U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Communities and states receiving HUD funding for housing initiatives now will be required to consider new, rich federal data about housing, segregation and differential opportunities, as well as generating and considering their own such data, in making policy decisions related to or having an impact upon housing discrimination and residents’ opportunities. The focus of this data collection isn’t the revelation of discriminatory practices and malicious intent. The focus is on patterns “on the ground,” whatever their cause may be.
One may, or may not, think that the government (at any level) should seek to change segregation and opportunity patterns the government did not create. One may, or may not, think that government policies with regard to housing and redevelopment (and education and economic development) should be designed to compensate for or alter patterns of investment by the private sector, or pragmatic decisions made by real estate agents about which areas to show prospective homeowners, or choices (however limited they may be) made by individual residents about where they will live.
What the use of this “big data” approach will show us is the effect, on a societal scale, of those private (and public) investment decisions, sales decisions and consumer decisions. The results, as some early maps already make clear, are likely to reveal startling patterns of disadvantage and advantage that correlate with race, ethnicity and poverty. They also correlate with the life chances of children who grow up in the disadvantaged areas. And certainly it should not be (but is) true, as Secretary Castro noted, that a child’s future could limited by the zip code in which the child grows up.
The appropriate question for our communities and our representatives is, “What is the role of the city/county/state/federal government in addressing these inequalities?”
Communities that do not wish to tackle the real-world societal implications of these individual and collective economic and social choices, however, must be prepared to forego assistance from Uncle Sam. The feds aren’t going to pay, any more, unless we invest their funds (and ours, it should be clear) in ways that address these inequalities.
It’s just like I tell my kids, after all. You don’t have to do what I think you should do. But don’t expect me to pay for your choices, or help you pay for them, if you don’t.
There’s a reason we call the federal government “Uncle Sam.” And a reason to think carefully about what we expect from our “uncle,” and what we are willing to accept from him.