Philadelphia is too big to fail. And so are Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and St. Louis and every other city. Cities are too big to fail, like Wall Street, like banking, like the car industry, airlines and cruise lines. In reality, there are more and better reasons to bail out cities’ massive shortfalls in revenues than the reasons supporting bail outs we already accept in banking, in industry, and in business. Unlike those for-profit sectors of the economy, cities are uniquely for the people, non-profit, and funded by us, for us. The essential services cities provide in education, treatment and economic development are the surest means of protecting against the seemingly inseparable blights of crime and poverty. So we are clear: If the federal government decides not to bail out cities’ revenue shortfalls in these times, the federal government will directly cause crime in our cities.
Cities are on the precipice of disaster, as they face a tremendous loss of revenue due to COVID-19, but must also simultaneously must care for a disproportionately large share of the population. Philadelphia faces an estimated $749 million shortfall when all is said and done; New York City is facing a $9 billion budget deficit; Austin, Texas, one of the nation’s fastest growing cities, faces a $200 million budget shortfall due to loss of revenue during COVID-19; and Los Angeles expects to be $108 million short of its pre-COVID-19 projections. And these shortfalls will impact overwhelming numbers of people. Most Americans — according to the last census, roughly 80 percent — live in cities.
If they are not bailed out, cities will have to massively cut essential services. They will not be able to provide substance use treatment or mental health services. People who are victims of crimes will not receive the support they need like trauma care and counseling. Children who need after-school programs and extra support will not receive it. People will not receive job training or assistance with job placement, and people will remain out of work. Many people will end up unhoused. And we will not be able to fund effective violence prevention programs in the cities that most need it. The health and safety of an entire generation of Americans will be set back, people will die, and our economy will cease to function as we know it. And crime will go up.
The federal government should reject that scenario. Yet as we have grappled with the economic impact of the coronavirus, government officials were quick to extend bailouts to the cruise ship and airline industries, but not to cities. While the federal government gave $500 billion to large corporations, made $4 trillion available to big businesses, and extended tax breaks for some of the country’s wealthiest individuals, it has not provided nearly enough relief for our cities. The federal government is allowing city governments to use funds only to combat the current public health emergency, but not to combat the resulting economic fallout from massive revenue shortfalls. By failing to issue a response that meets the gravity of the present moment, the federal government is leaving every city behind, which puts our entire nation at risk.
It is not too late for the federal government to act. In the next CARES Act, Congress must reduce the restriction on how cities can access and use reserve funds. It needs to increase block grants for disaster funding, and the government should allow more flexibility in their use to cover all the essential services only city government can provide.
The list of policy solutions is much longer than this, but the federal government has shown that it knows how to provide economic support and that it is willing to do so if it deems the recipient worthy. The question for the federal government, then, is whether officials have the political will to implement policies to help the cities where the overwhelming majority of Americans live and work or will they again single out corporate America for assistance while excluding the American people? For the sake of Philadelphia and the urban centers that house 80% of Americans, I hope that they will invest in people, not profit. Our cities and our people are worthy.
The city I love, Philadelphia, is too big to fail and we will all be unsafe if it does. The same is true of every other great American city and that truth is obvious. The remedy is straightforward — to bail out cities’ revenue drops that are the consequence of these times, not just cities’ extra costs to provide medical services. 99% of us have had enough of government bailouts that grow the number of billionaires while simultaneously growing the number of people living in poverty, as is happening right now.