A New Urban Opportunity Agenda: Rather Than Embrace Redistribution and Regulation, Cities Should Unleash the Power of Free People and Free Markets to Uplift the Poor

It has been two years since a new liberal breeze swept through New York’s City Hall. After two decades of pragmatic leadership, Gotham had opted for a full-throated progressive mayor, a man who, in the hope of reducing inequality and helping the city’s poor, favored traditional public schools; steep taxes on those making more than $500,000; a $15 local minimum wage; and extensive regulatory requirements for the construction industry, imposed in the name of affordability. As Bill de Blasio may have started to learn, however, mayors with such huge expectations have often overseen urban failure. The reason isn’t hard to grasp. The core deliverables of city government—safe and clean streets, good schools, a favorable economic environment—are hard enough to achieve and maintain without also seeking to eradicate locally the inequalities that abound in our highly unequal world.

If cities are terrible places for blunt redistribution, they’re terrific laboratories for innovation. Two decades ago, William Bratton experimented with Broken Windows policing while heading the Boston police force, before he brought this approach to New York under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and reduced the city’s crime dramatically. Nearly a quarter-century ago, Milwaukee’s Democratic mayor John Norquist pioneered school vouchers. Today, post-Katrina New Orleans is showing what can be achieved when a dysfunctional public school system is replaced with an all-charter system.

A new urban opportunity agenda can experiment with various new ways to uplift the poor. If such experiments are carried out with limited cash outlays, they could create a model for national policy, too. After all, in the current environment, with Congress under Republican control, there’s unlikely to be much federal enthusiasm for any new taxing and spending on social problems.

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