On Welfare States and Towns

-why do areas so dependent on federal funding seem to despise the federal govt

A bizarre reality of U.S. politics is that those areas that receive the most federal largesse are often those who despise the federal government the most. Charles Marohn, in discussing the problems small-town and suburban planners face, has an interesting explanation (boldface mine):

The paradox: I’ve always believed that working in a big city one would be faced with the small fish in a big pond problem. How does one person make any meaningful impact on such a big system? It’s overwhelming. Yet, in a small town, I not only can go talk to the mayor, I could be the mayor if I really wanted to be (maybe not me, specifically, but someone who was so inclined could work and make that happen). There is little distance between me and the local government.

Yet reading Ethan — and working with people in cities large and small all over the country — I have developed a realization that he feels (1) far more empowered to actually change things than I do here in my small town (pop. 13,500) and (2) feels less impacted by the policies of a centralized state than someone in my small town does. A paradox, and I think a rational one…

In my small town, the state and federal governments are THE force shaping the trajectory of my community. It is state and federal policy that dictates nearly everything about how we develop and grow. I find it frustratingly impossible to fight that, to the point where I would rather have nothing than what we’re being handed. For a city like Minneapolis, the state and federal governments are two of many players, often not even the biggest. The relationship there is much, much different.

In Marohn’s town (Brainerd, MN), local property tax accounts for less revenue than federal and state payments do. And with that money comes a lack of agency:

How much can I — your above-average, involved citizen — impact these projects? Not at all. They are all hostage to forces outside of our control. Sure, we might get some superficial input, but since the money is coming out of a state and federal bureaucracy, there is little I can do to impact the outcome. And look at the size of those projects! The Minneapolis equivalent would be a Vikings stadium-sized project every two or three years totally funded by the state. Feel powerless to oppose that stadium? What if those same power dynamics applied to your local street year after year after year?

…And, really, who does that money empower? It empowers the politicians, local bureaucrats, the affiliated non-governmental organizations and the large corporations, all of which have a near-monopoly on the knowledge, connections and pipeline to make things happen. Oppose them and you not only are opposing growth, jobs and progress but you threaten the viability of the entire community.

Unlike smaller communities, larger communities, especially cities, have multiple levers of power to pull:

I suspect that when Ethan — or his equivalent in another major metropolitan area — reaches a hurdle, there are at least two options available that are not available to the advocate in a small town or rural area. The first is to use a different funding stream. That might not be easy, but it is far easier in a system where alternative funding streams actually exist. The second would be to work with your cadre of elected state officials — people who likewise have a positive view of what state and federal government can accomplish — to make the policy changes needed to clear that hurdle. This is almost impossible in a single small town where legislators — predominantly from the part of the political spectrum not inclined to public policy nuances — represent many cities, many who would certainly see change as threatening.

This does not bode well for the looming economic sustainability crisis suburbia and exurbia will face.

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1 Response to On Welfare States and Towns

  1. Drugmonkey says:

    I don’t get it.

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