When Hillary Clinton spoke in Harlem in February, she barely used the words “urban” or “cities,” but she laid out one of the most ambitious urban agendas of any modern presidential nominee.
“If I’m elected president, we will direct hundreds of billions of dollars in new investments to places like Harlem and rural South Carolina,” Clinton declared at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. As she’d done four days earlier in small-town Denmark, South Carolina, Clinton talked up her $125 billion “Breaking Every Barrier” agenda to help poor communities with jobs, housing and access to capital. But as she addressed communities of all kinds, including African-Americans and the rural poor, she also mentioned Flint, Michigan, where she’d spoken the week before.
“There are many Flints across our country,” Clinton said, “places where people of color and the poor have been left out and left behind.”
Clinton’s website doesn’t include a page for “cities” or an “urban” agenda, and nothing in “Breaking Every Barrier” would be earmarked for cities. It focuses on areas of concentrated poverty, wherever they are. “It is not an urban problem,” Clinton said in Harlem. “It’s an American problem.” Her argument, meant to build a broad coalition for an anti-poverty agenda, contrasts sharply with the rhetoric of Donald Trump, who’s since grown fond of declaring that African-Americans in inner cities “are living in hell.”
Still, nearly all of Clinton’s 30 pledges in “Breaking Every Barrier” have major implications for America’s cities. Clinton wants affordable housing in neighborhoods that haven’t seen much of it, money to tear down blight in the most troubled cities, and incentives to ease regulations that create scarcity in the hottest housing markets. Many of her proposals build on successes from the Bill Clinton and Barack Obama administrations, including the use of public-private partnerships to stimulate urban economies.
But even if Clinton wins the White House, her sweeping, expensive proposals will face strong political and fiscal challenges — especially if Republicans keep control of Congress. If Clinton becomes president, she could quickly face a stark, pragmatic question: What’s her plan B for cities if she can’t do it all?
Before Barry Bluestone read Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier” agenda, he and his colleagues at Northeastern University asked each other what they would include if they were drawing up a national agenda for cities.
“Almost everything I talked about that I thought was needed, from all the work I’ve done in Boston and around the country — there is a piece of that somewhere in this agenda,” Bluestone says. For nearly 30 years, Bluestone, a political economy and urban affairs professor and author of 11 books on related issues, has worked on ways to address America’s growing inequality and a decline in social mobility. So Clinton’s proposals to help more people own homes excite him, as does her hope of spending $25 billion on jobs programs for youth and people with criminal records.
“I was pleased to see how broad this was,” Bluestone says. “It seemed to be touching on the kinds of investments we need to make a significant difference.”