National Press Club Speech, November 24, 2003
President, National League of Cities and Mayor, New Haven, Connecticut
National Press Club, November 24, 2003
Let me thank the Press Club on behalf of myself - and the National League of Cities - for the opportunity to be here today.
And most especially, for the chance to talk about something I truly love: cities and towns. All the kinds of places we grew up in and went to school in. The places where we married and went to church. High school football games, parks. Raising our families. Burying our parents. All the places that are good and decent that make up this country and the heartbeat of our lives. Cities and towns.
It is always a point of pride for me as an American - but more truly so as my hometown's mayor - to come to our nation's capital. One mayor of one small, one wonderful, American city with, I think, something to offer on behalf of my city.
But that's not the conventional wisdom, is it? The idea that America's local elected officials come to Washington with something to offer. Rather, the stereotype is that we're here to take, not give. And, like a lot of ignorance and prejudices, that's the wrong take on things.
The fact is, throughout our history, local government has been the foundation of America that has created our nation's uniquely large middle class. When we come here seeking federal aid, we aren't asking for a handout. Quite the opposite, we're looking for the resources back that we need to keep doing what we do best, to do what we have always done and what we must do - to create pathways for new Americans to become productive citizens, to create opportunities for working families to become solidly middle class, and to make sure that middle class families have opportunities to grow their wealth.
The conventional wisdom in these deeply ahistorical times is that local government needs federal subsidies to survive. But that wisdom ignores the facts, and ignores our history as a nation.
You see, my city, my New Haven, was already 138 years old when our founders declared independence. Generations of New Haveners had already struggled, and worked, and died - and struggled and died again - before there was this capital city, this ideal that is America.
Cities and towns are not the children, nor are we the creatures, of America. If anything, we're the creators. America's possibility and its economy is only the sum of all the things that we are, and all the things that we do.
It's our blood and our effort that course through our nation and her 50 states. It was my predecessor, Roger Sherman - the first mayor of New Haven - who signed the Declaration of Independence. It was Roger Sherman, buried back in New Haven, who signed the Articles of Confederation and who affixed his name to the Constitution that created this nation and that governs us to t his day.
No, we are not creatures of the country. Rather it is we, American's cities and towns, who made the ideal.
Go back in time and you will see that we have always understood this. Our earliest revolutionary leaders fought to stop the export of our wealth to the undemocratic British crown. Instead, they envisioned local democratic governments that used the public's wealth to make public investments. They came together risking all, in common cause for the common good.
Today, we find ourselves in circumstances analogous to the ones our forefathers fought against. Federal government reaps the benefit of revenues and wealth created at the local level. Yet the federal government withholds those same resources and denigrates our efforts to make public investments that will protect and grow the middle class - the very foundation of the country.
So, no, the mayors of this country do not come here as supplicants. No, when we come, we come to sustain and to connect with this ideal - this vision that is this nation - and to serve the same working families who are the strength of this nation.
CITIES AND THE AMERICAN SPIRIT
I mean this. And I think that anyone who really wants to wrap themselves around this enterprise, this community that is America - that anyone who really wants to take America seriously, and wants to be taken seriously by America - must first understand its magic. And the spirit that has sustained it all these generations. The strength that is America draws its breath, and its being, from our cities and towns.
You see, for those of us in local government, we live close up. We look into each other's eyes, every day. We see each other's faults - and each other's possibilities. And, on special days, we look into each other's eyes and see ourselves.
Let me give you this example.
Today 130,000 men and women, 130,000 Americans, are - by choice and by conviction - putting all they have at risk. Where did they learn this? How did they come to believe something so strongly - that they would forever separate themselves from everything that is important to them, everything that is good, and joyful, and satisfying in their lives? Forever! How is this?
These are not conscripts. These are not people without other choices in their lives. These are not economically or spiritually humbled men and women. No, these are self-aware, rational, serious people making serious decisions - a rational choice that they belong to something bigger than themselves, and that that something bigger than themselves demands from them everything, everything, that they have to give.
Amazing, isn't it? How incredible! An ideal so powerful that in order to live a life worth living, you must be willing to forfeit it.
Think about it. Where did these young Americans learn this? Where do these values of sacrifice, of mutual interest over self, of service, come from?
- They came from families. Families that worked - worked hard. Families where mom and dad - or mom, or dad - had a job with a decent week's pay and who sacrificed so that their kids could do better.
- These young Americans came from neighborhoods - neighborhoods that were patrolled by cops and protected by firefighters. Men and women of courage and self sacrifice. Men and women such as these entered the World Trade Center two years ago - no questions asked. Where did these young Americans learn about self sacrifice and the value of each and every one of us? They learned it at home, in their neighborhood, by example.
- And these neighborhoods? They had playgrounds, and parks, and libraries, and a sense of predictability and of familiarity.
- These young Americans went to schools - public schools staffed and supported by people they knew, because they were neighbors.
Where did these 130,000 Americans - their values and their ideals - come from? They came from cities and towns. Everything I just said is local. They are our children, from our streets, from our neighborhoods, from our schools. Each of them comes from a hometown that will, by the grace of God, welcome them safely back soon.
The 130,000 Americans in Iraq are fighting for a democratic Iraqi government, where the wealth of the country is spent on the citizens of Iraq and not on a few wealthy elites. What they are fighting for in Iraq is a government that prioritizes investments to create a middle class.
These are the values that they learned in their hometowns. Democratic government should expand economic opportunity. It is ironic that as they fight for this American ideal abroad, we are losing our commitment to it at home.
STATE OF CITIES
Yet, for all this, people still see that cities and towns are places of possibility, and hope, and wealth creation. I sense it in every pore of my New Haven, where we can't build housing fast enough in a city that was fully built out by the time of the First World War. And I see it in cities and towns all across the country:
Local government is doing its share to create economic opportunity. Local government - cities and towns - are creating stable, safe, level playing fields that are helping America's working families do better - but job creation is slow to come in America today.
Americans are a lot safer than they used to be. Crime is way down in cities and towns. Over 50% down in New Haven. New partnerships and policing strategies are effectively cutting crime - yet we are burdened with a new job, homeland security, without the resources to do it.
Schools are doing better. Like New Haven, most cities are seeing that test scores are up, truancy is down, matriculation rates are up - and - more kids are in pre-K programs, because we believe in giving every kid a fair chance Ð yet, again, we are facing a new federal law, "No Child Left Behind," which represents our generation's largest unfunded federal mandate.
The air and water is cleaner. But we're struggling with sprawl and the consumption of too much open space - happening too fast. And a pending energy bill that will reverse much of the progress that has been accomplished.
You see, America's cities and towns, they understand. They get it. In order to thrive, in order to get ahead, we know that each of us must belong to something bigger than just ourselves.
And at the local level, we can't hide in the corridors of power. We're in the corridors of the local supermarket. Our constituents are our neighbors, not well paid lobbyists. We keenly understand the importance of making government invest in protecting and growing opportunity, by protecting and growing the middle class. And that - that's what guarantees our freedoms and our possibilities here in America.
At the local level, we are fighting hard every day, to preserve American ideals through our public investment strategies. Yet, America's middle class families continue to fall behind. And because of state and federal budget problems, many of us are cutting workforces, cutting services, and having to raise taxes.
For the first time in American history, our children might end up being economically worse off than ourselves. According to Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, middle class families today are in worse shape than those of the archetypical 1950's. Middle class parents are taking on more debt than they can afford to purchase homes in affluent school districts, and are sacrificing other financial and emotional needs as a result.
Her research found that married couples with children are twice as likely to file for bankruptcy as childless couples. And they are 75 % more likely to face foreclosure on their homes. In other words, having children has turned from being the ideal to becoming the leading predicator of middle class financial ruin.
And that's just one disturbing example of a larger trend that any local government leader - including this mayor - can attest to. It is getting harder and harder to become - and to stay - middle class in America. Families are working harder, fraying relationships, and still, no progress is being made.
This is not the result of faulty financial planning by America's middle class. Rather, it is the concrete evidence of our contradictory public investment priorities. As we disinvest from local government, we subsidize the trends that undermine the middle class. Underfunded public schools, smaller police forces, deteriorating public transportation systems, expensive health care, sprawl - there are public choices that increasingly subvert our American ideal - even as we fight for it overseas.
And so, when America's cities and towns come to this capital, we do so for clear purpose. We look to the resources we need to do our job, towards our shared American ideal.
Cities and towns are not asking for handouts. We are asking for principled investment in the things that have made America uniquely successful in creating a broad middle class. We are asking for investment in what makes American work, what makes America great.
Let me mention four areas that demand partnership and investment by our federal government:
Start with the most obvious: investments in children. Specifically, investments in what they need to grow into the productive citizens on which the nation depends.
In today's economy, our young families - those headed by persons under 30 - are especially vulnerable. In the last three decades, income losses for young families with children have been particularly large. Between 1973 and 2000, the poverty rate for young families doubled, and those with children had the highest rate of all. Even the unprecedented economic growth of the 1990's did not improve their situation. Once again, we see how our lack of investment in children is making it difficult for middle class families to exist.
It is no surprise that a National League of Cities study released just last month found that childcare and early learning opportunities are critical needs in America's cities and towns. In fact, One out of every four city officials surveyed now lists childcare among the most critical service needs of families in their communities.
With only one is seven eligible children getting federal child care assistance, and with many states maintaining long child care waiting lists, it's fair to say that the federal government is not a strong partner in meeting child care needs or in meeting early learning needs.
And be assured that more than charter schools, more than vouchers, more than additional testing - nothing, nothing, would do more to improve academic outcomes for our kids, throughout their lives, than if they were able to arrive in kindergarten ready to learn.
And this is not a problem that just affects mothers facing more stringent, and contradictory, welfare rules. It is a widespread challenge that affects all American parents and that threatens the economic security and viability of our middle class.
SAFETY AND SECURITY
Continue to the next most obvious. A civil society is a necessary prerequisite to the social and economic infrastructure that allows us to live up to our American ideal. Without ensuring the safety of our citizens, we cannot create the economic growth or quality of life that are essential to preserving and growing our middle class.
In the two years since the 9-11 attacks, this nation has yet to strike a balance between homeland security and day-to-day public safety. At a time when the nation's police forces are expected to be on guard against terrorism and to serve as "first responders" in the event of a terrorist incident, Washington is actually cutting funding for basic public safety programs.
Funding for the COPS program, the Drug Elimination Grant, the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant - the three strong partnerships between cities and towns and the federal government that have significantly contributed to the greatest reduction in crime in modern times in America - are all being eliminated or cut by the federal government.
It makes no sense that the nation's investment that guarantees civility and order in America is actually decreasing even as local police are now expected to provide the infrastructure that supports homeland security.
Cities across the nation are reporting to NLC that they are less able to meet their financial needs this year than in past years, and they say that meeting the costs of public safety poses one of the most serious problems for them.
Livable communities that will sustain and grow middle class families require re-investing in the public safety programs that local governments depend on to protect Americans.
TRANSPORTATION AND SMART GROWTH
Another good example: investing in transportation. Specifically, investments in the systems workers depend on to get from where they life, to where they work, and back again. Current federal transportation policies, embodied in the TEA-21 legislation, are geared to making heavy investments in highways, but only small investments in public transit. The reauthorization of TEA-21, now underway in Congress, will not likely correct that imbalance.
Combine those federal policies with state and local land use policies that encourage the development of open space, and you have the perfect recipe for sprawl and congestion. Sprawl is traffic. Sprawl is parents' time spent away from their families - connected to their cars rather than their kids. Congestion is poorer air quality and a compromise of the environment.
My own state of Connecticut is an illustration of what can happen when policies encouraging sprawl beat out policies encouraging smart growth. Over the last 10 years my state's population grew by 12% while the urbanized area of the state more than doubled. We are in danger of compromising the rural character of Connecticut - the character that adds to our attractiveness and contributes to the quality of life of all of us who live there. We are in danger of becoming wall-to-wall suburbs.
You see, I understand this issue: 18% of the kids in my schools have been diagnosed with asthma, and 33% of those kids are on medication for their illness.
All families require policies and investments that will reduce congestion, reduce the amount of hours we spend connected to our cars and away from our children, and preserve the open spaces that make America beautiful.
It will also make it easier for our kids to breathe.
And, at the end of the day, as at the beginning, each family is at home. Homeownership has been fundamental to the American dream since the days of the homesteaders. Owner-occupied homes are what make strong neighborhoods in our cities and towns. They keep our streets safe, our citizens proud, and our communities vibrant.
Local governments depend on programs that transition families to homeownership and to all forms of decent housing. New Haven's Dixwell Neighborhood is the heart and, indeed, the oldest part of the city's African-American neighborhood. A decade ago it was one of the districts with the highest number of police calls in the city. It was also home to the city's oldest and largest public housing development.
Today, it is home to a mixed-income community of homeowners, rents and senior housing. Police calls for service are down dramatically. The nighttime reading program at the nearby branch library is wonderful and well attended. A lot of hard work went into those changes by a whole bunch of determined community residents.
So, too, a HUD Hope VI Grant. The change is an absolute miracle and I welcome you all to come see it.
But today, the administration says that Hope VI is no longer needed and is cutting a wide variety of other programs that local governments depend on to transition families into homeownership and into decent housing.
Consider another case: With home mortgage rates at record lows, the housing industry booming, with home ownership and new single family house sales at record rates - all this has done relatively little to ease the severe shortage of affordable housing.
With housing costs, on average, consuming 50% of income, housing affordability has become a middle class crisis. In community after community, our children are finding it difficult to afford housing in the very towns in which they grew up.
And for all the cost of investment for all the things that I have just mentioned, I am confident. I am confident that if the nation can get the $87 billion quickly through the Congress for a war that we are deeply conflicted about, then we can get the resources to do the things that we know will work in America - and that are right for America's middle class families.
And so it is the challenge of each generation of Americans to lay the foundation for those who follow, to increase economic opportunity for the next generation by the investments we make today.
Obviously, this infrastructure is not just a state or local responsibility. If the federal government, the whole of the nation, benefits from the wealth and the obligation of citizens to the state - as we see in Iraq - it also bears the responsibility to invest in those same citizens and in he middle class that produced them.
The America of tomorrow has everything to do with the convictions held and the choices we make today. Tomorrow's Americans will be profoundly affected by our aspirations for them, and by the ability of today's leaders - at all levels of government - to put those aspirations within their reach.
Our policy ought to be investment in the very people who have always built, and will continue to build, this nation - America's middle class families. And if we believe that we strengthen this nation by strengthening working families, then our federal and state governments should not retreat from sensible investments in these families.
As president of the National League of Cities, I have met with literally thousands of local elected officials this year - mayors, council members, selectmen - thousands.
Let me tell you that the politics of these men and women are not the politics of "D's" and "R's," of red states and blue states. We are members of our hometowns, working on behalf of t
Our politics rest on the proposition that it is local government's job to build community by investing in economic opportunity. We know that individual fulfillment and the exercise of personal initiative and the rewards that accrue to hard work can only be guaranteed by shared responsibility in undertaking reasonable public investment. We must undertake these investments to gain:
- A fair and just society.
- A level playing field.
- The right to seek a better economic future for oneself and one's family.
- The right to enjoy a decent quality of life; and
- The right to expect that our own children will do better than we did.
If we abandon this path, if we abandon our American ideal of investing in a middle class, then we will fail to produce citizens who will sacrifice all that they have for the benefit of the place that taught them those ideals.
Frankly, America's cities and towns are - and I have been - up to this task. We know what needs to be done. We have been dazzled by the character of the families of our communities, and we work every day to equal their accomplishments and their possibilities.
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, president of Morehouse College and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr., said,
"The tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy of lies in having no goal to reach. It isn't a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have not stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim, is sin."
The American ideal was forged from continuous struggle - not low aim. In these challenging times, we cannot abandon the investments that have ensured the transfer of those ideals from one generation to the next. America has always been a place off dreams. Together we must continue to reach for the stars.
My thanks to each of you for your time today
Added December 22, 2003