Professor George Galster: Motown sings the saddest songs

LIKE Glasgow, Detroit was a blue-collar, militantly-unionised, industrial behemoth at the close of the Second World War. Both cities were divided by warring factions defined either by religion or race.

Both cities in the 65 years since 1945 have lost significant shares of population and their primary industries at the time - shipbuilding in the case of Glasgow and automobiles in the case of Detroit - have become vestiges of their former selves.

Yet, today, Glasgow has been reinvented, rebranded and revitalised, while Detroit has become the world's poster-child for urban decay and dysfunction. Why? Although the two cities indeed shared may economic, social and cultural similarities, they operated within fundamentally different structures of governance and planning. Three key elements of these structures made all the difference: national social welfare policy, local government fiscal responsibilities and regional planning arrangements.

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First, for the last half century the UK has provided a wide variety of safety nets for income, housing, health care, and education that sustain the less fortunate. Since such citizens overwhelmingly cluster in cities, these national social welfare policies indirectly have benefited cities disproportionately.

By contrast, the US social welfare "safety net" has long been shredded. Basic human support programmes have never been funded adequately, let alone guaranteed by the US federal government as a matter of right. Income support since 1996 has been limited to the disabled; single women with children are eligible to claim such support for only five years during their lifetime, and married couples and those without dependent children get nothing at all. Housing subsidies are provided to only a third of those who qualify because Congress has not allocated sufficient budget resources.

Until last year's reform, health insurance for those of modest income was non-existent or spotty. University education in the US has never been paid for fully by any level of government, forcing students from lower-income families who cannot get the all-too-rare scholarships to either forego such education or go deeply into debt.

What do all these American governmental social welfare policies mean for its cities? Detroit's low-income citizens have been lucky if they got pittances of income, housing, health care or university education supports. The consequences are devastating on several levels.Trapped in poor-quality housing, suffering from inadequate primary health care, and deprived of higher educational opportunities, America's urban poor usually stay poor.

Predictably, desperate people do desperate things, so participation in illegal activities - especially the drug trade and property crime - increasingly becomes the only means of survival. For Detroit this lack of a social safety net at the national level is particularly painful. Nearly 40 per cent of its population is classified as below the poverty line, defined as a family of four with an income below a paltry $20,000 - the highest rate of any big city in the nation.

Second, the UK government has supported its cities financially through a significant transfer of unrestricted funds and offered troubled places disproportionate amounts of regeneration aid in an effort to stem their decline. By stark contrast, in the US federal system cities have received puny amounts of assistance from their state or federal governments. Though Congress in 1974 passed legislation that would transfer federal funds to cities on the basis of need, this "Community Development Block Grant" programme never was funded adequately and has been progressively scaled back over the years.

During each of the post-war Democratic administrations there have been symbolic attempts at urban revitalisation, known variously as "Model Cities," "Urban Development Action Grants," and "Empowerment Zones". All were laughably underfunded tokens. Republican administrations have not even bothered with symbolic revitalisation policies, instead arguing that the market will take care of cities' woes eventually. American cities are thus expected to be financially self-sufficient. They therefore must levy taxes on real property, income, and/or retail sales to support their public services. This works fine unless that place begins losing jobs and people of means.

In Detroit's case, in the first 20 years after the Second World War the city lost half of its manufacturing jobs; in the next 20 years it lost half of the rest. The latest statistics are not yet released but they undoubtedly will be even grimmer. What remains of the Detroit region's economy is now overwhelmingly concentrated in the suburban ring. This has produced huge disparities in fiscal capacity: Detroit's suburbs have over three times the property tax base per capita as the city. This disparity sets in motion a downward spiral.

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In an attempt to shore up its budget, Detroit raises its rates levied on property and income and slashes its public service outlays. Business and citizens with means increasingly see it to their advantage to choose suburban locations. Thus, a cycle of ever-rising tax rates, diminished services and further losses of population and tax base sets in.Third, though metropolitan areas in the UK and US are subdivided into smaller political units, the fragmentation of general-purpose local governments is extreme in places like Detroit, where more than 200 municipalities, townships, and counties make unco-ordinated and often competitive decisions about taxing, services, land use, housing, transport, and economic development.

Glasgow has provided social housing in estates scattered throughout the region. In metropolitan Detroit, suburban jurisdictions can keep out what little subsidised housing is provided by the federal government, and often can limit the amount of affordable private rental stock supplied by their local market. By default, the poor are bottled up in Detroit.

Glasgow planners have built a comprehensive mass transit system and directed retail, commercial and housing renewal activities into the core. Metro Detroit has never had any regional planning organisations with teeth. Today it has not a single mile of rail transit. No commuter trains, no subways, no light rail, no streetcars. Instead it has a chaotic highway system and sprawling, speculative housing development at the suburban fringe that has emptied population from the core and produced a ghastly visage: a city with over one-third of its land area vacant.

For a city famous for inventing the car assembly line, it is ironic that it is embedded in a fragmented regional planning structure that works as a "disassembly line".

The massive impact of the regional Disassembly Line on the City of Detroit over the last half-century can be summarised in four cold statistics. From 1950 to 2005, Detroit has suffered a decline in the number of its: homes by 29 per cent, people by 52 per cent, jobs by 55 per cent, and property tax revenues by 60 per cent. Today the detritus left by the Disassembly Line are painfully visible in vast swathes of Detroit, yet the city is in no position to do anything about it besides trying to clean up the mess with fewer and fewer resources at its disposal.

The city did not build the Disassembly Line. It does not operate it. It does not have the political power to stop it nor or the fiscal resources to compensate for its consequences.

The regional Detroit Disassembly Line today sings a discordant duet of sucking sounds. From the suburban fringe emanates the sound of the City of Detroit's people, businesses and financial resources being sucked away. From the core emanates the sound of a once-great, but now impotent city going down the drain.

Today there are omens in the UK Conservative's "Big Society" rhetoric that the structures that kept Glasgow from going down the drain like Detroit are threatened. A pull-back from social welfare supports, city financial supports and abolition of regional planning bodies is bad urban policy.

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• George Galster is professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit.He will deliver a free public lecture entitled Driving Detroit: The Quest for R-E-S-P-E-C-T in Motown, in the Senate Room, University of Glasgow, 6pm tomorrow. Anyone wishing to attend should register in advance on 0141-330 5048 or e-mail [email protected]