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Michelle Wilde Anderson Sees Into America’s Heart in “The Fight to Save the Town”

At their core, Michelle Wilde Anderson’s poignant and expertly crafted narratives in "The Fight to Save the Town" are tales of localities in decline. The communities she visits and the people she interviews alternate between resilience, disappointment and despair.  The reader comes away from the book with a deep understanding of what caused the deterioration of the four localities Anderson has studied, but also with admiration for the individuals and organizations that have stared in the face of failed local services and created for themselves some of the benefits of residence they might justifiably have thought their local governments would provide.  Even if full success remains an unrealized hope, the valiant efforts that Anderson describes reveal the promise of bottom-up community action to redress the disillusionments of top-down official provision.  Even if you can’t fight city hall, maybe with the right organizational skills and committed residents, you can replace it.I think that these are some of the takeaways that Anderson expected her readers to experience from her thick description of the origins and effects of community movements within what she describes as “discarded America.”
But I had some additional reactions that perhaps were less intended, and that cast a less rosy view on the future of distressed cities.  Here, I will mention three: the role of local governments in their own decline, the limits of private provision of local public goods, and the difficult issue of whether to provide aid to places or to people. 
The first issue addresses the question of how these localities – each of which possesses a rich history as a once-proud and prosperous community – failed.  For the most part, decline was a function of events far beyond local control.  Certainly, localities have little influence over national industrial policy and trade agreements that underwrote the movement towards globalization and deindustrialization.  Nor do cities, especially Blue cities in Red states, have the influence to prevent state disinvestment, such as Michigan’s 48% reduction of state-shared revenue to Detroit between 1998 and 2012, or Massachusetts’s funding state tax cuts by depriving cities of needed revenues.  But some cities that faced similar obstacles proved able to reinvent themselves.  Pittsburgh is often seen as the poster child for the successful post-industrial city.  Others, like former mill city Lebanon, New Hampshire, have avoided the fate of Lawrence, Massachusetts, even if they are thriving less than in their heyday. 
What explains why some cities survived better than others?  Anderson powerfully implies at several points that pervasive racism in places like Detroit and Lawrence poses obstacles to growth.  But it seems unclear that those cities experienced greater intergroup animosity than other American cities that have experienced fiscal distress.  Cities with diverse economies likely have done better than cities like Lawrence that relied so heavily on textiles.  Pittsburgh, had developed research universities and possessed natural advantages such as proximity to areas vulnerable to fracking, which, for all its controversy, provided an economic lifeline.  But none of these seems to provide a compelling argument for distinguishing between the successful and the “discarded”.
Perhaps one lesson that could be drawn from Anderson is that institutional design and good governance matter.  Anderson recognizes this, of course.  She writes that local governments that do not “work well . . . do not just reflect inequality.  They help drive it.” (10) 
Many of Anderson’s narratives mention a history of corruption and incompetence that contributed to fiscal distress.  There are occasional stories of well-meaning public officials.  Anderson praises Michael Tubbs, who rose from the streets of Stockton to serve on the city council and as mayor in an effort to unify neighborhoods and augment insufficient city coffers with private funds, only to lose his battle for re-election.  Michael Rivera attempts to balance the Lawrence budget, notwithstanding a legacy of pension debt, opioid crisis, and delinquent taxpayers.  For the most part, however, local government seems to have contributed to the problems rather than to the solutions.  Mismanagement in Detroit, including high levels of regulation and poor services, topped off by the city’s investment in derivatives that turned disastrous when interest rates turned the wrong way, may have contributed to its bankruptcy as much as a fleeing manufacturing sector.  Inefficient police patrols in Josephine, Oregon give rise to volunteer patrolling with all the inequality of provision that one would predict follows when private suppliers replace public ones. The external sources of city distress may be dominant, but if part of the way to avoid future Stocktons and Detroits is to identify unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds that weaken local governance, we should not avoid those inquiries out of a fear of blaming the victim. 
  My second observation, which follows from the first, is that Anderson’s celebration of the private provision of local public goods comes with a caveat.  The individual and community actions that she describes involve the provision of services that one would have thought was a primary objective of the local government itself.  I imagine that Anderson would prefer that each local government had successfully fulfilled that mission and made private provision superfluous.  Given the systemic disregard that city government has had for the neighborhoods from which the community organizations that Anderson celebrates have evolved, it is entirely appropriate to commend those who seek remediation through private action.  But I am wary of these private efforts for the same reasons that informed the privatization debate of a few decades ago.  Her preferred providers are non-profits and community organizations rather than for-profit firms that have received criticism for favoring financial returns over constituent service.  Nevertheless, even the most committed community organization will focus on the benefits to its constituents rather than to the city as a whole.  Sometimes, interventions initiated to assist one group (the relatively poor) spill over to benefit the city as a whole.  Bernadette Atuahene’s research, scholarship and advocacy to reform Detroit’s property tax system assured all residents that property tax collections were consistent with constitutional mandates.  But a general problem of private provision of public goods remains.  Those who have the organizational advantage to lobby for and obtain public resources for their preferred expenditures are not necessarily representative of community needs generally.  The very fact that Anderson tells stories of heroic efforts by some residents to advocate for their needs illustrates how difficult it is for such organizations to evolve, much less to be successful.  That also means that other members of the community who have less organizational skill are disadvantaged in the competition for limited resources.  It is questionable whether the decision to give Group A service X rather than to give Group B service Y should depend on which group more successfully organizes to make its claim.  Of course, given the historic disinvestment from the relevant communities, it is perhaps even more plausible that but for Group A’s community efforts to obtain X, the city would have provided neither X nor Y.  The caveat, therefore, is certainly not that community advocacy is inappropriate.  Rather, it is that private provision is a second-best solution to a failed system of public provision that, ideally, would consider competing claims to a limited budget.  Whether the distortions inherent in public provision are greater than the distortions inherent in private provision is simply an empirical question.
Third, Anderson’s narratives detail the various ways in which both self-help and assistance from outside sources can benefit individuals in distressed cities.  But should our efforts concentrate more on providing assistance to get the people about whom she is writing out of their cities and into new communities where they can enjoy an improved quality of life?  Here we enter the difficult issue of whether aid to the poor should be place-based or people-based.  Place-based policies focus on increasing employment opportunities in local labor markets.  They are the motivation for efforts such as Opportunity Zones (which for all their difficulties may still be a good idea) and state/local incentive programs (which may not be).  People-based programs, on the other hand, are directed at creating opportunities for those unable to find a meaningful quality of life in a distressed city to leave.  The literature on climate change increasingly suggests that areas susceptible to natural disaster should be the subject of “managed retreat” to safer jurisdictions.  But residents of a locality at risk for economic disaster don’t face a future much more hopeful than residents of a locality at risk for environmental disaster.  If we want to increase options for the latter group by assisting them to exit, perhaps we should contemplate providing the same exit opportunities for the former group, whether through more pervasive training or relocation assistance or some combination of the two. 
I read Anderson’s book, therefore, as a cogent plea that asks serious questions about the sources and effects of local fiscal and service decline.  That is a necessary predicate to the remaining issues of how to reduce fiscal distress and what solutions are appropriate to provide redress to residents who can neither obtain the local services they expect or easily exit to more hospitable jurisdictions.   

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