Urban Decay



Syracuse University professor Carl Schramm set off a bit of a firestorm in the Syracuse, NY community with a piece that appeared in Forbes last month: By Forgetting Its Proud Economic History, Syracuse Loses Its Future.

For eight decades, right up to the Depression, Syracuse was one of the thirty largest cities in the country with one of the best-educated and healthiest populations.  For another thirty it was among the 50 largest cities.  Not surprisingly, given its economic importance, it was also one of the wealthiest cities.  Everyone had good jobs.  Household income was well above the national average.  Family bank accounts were at times higher than those in Detroit and Philadelphia.  Not surprisingly, its school system was one of the best in the country.

Today Syracuse’s civic distinctions are embarrassing.

The 170th largest city (and only one of 15 in the top 200 that continues to lose population, thus making it one of the fastest shrinking cities), it ranks second in the ratio of property taxes to assessed value (3 times greater the national average), its schools produce students who are consistently in the lowest quartile of New York State students in every subject in every grade, and it is among the top 100 cities in terms of infant mortality!  The obvious conclusion: the city’s economy no longer works.  A recent report from the state found that average household income was $31,000 while the state average was $55,000.

Read the whole thing, as it could have been written about any number of once prosperous cities that are now in a death spiral of urban decline, especially cities in northern blue states. My only critique is the lack of emphasis on how the decline is a product of decades of progressive policies. But that’s not the problem many Syracusans had with the op-ed. Schramm faced so much criticism he was compelled to write a follow-up piece: Syracuse Can Rise Again, But Only If The Entrepreneurs Return.

Some hard facts, however, point to just how difficult the job of recovery will be. Understandably, some commenters took exception to the story told by these facts.  They suggest that by pointing out these realities (low income levels, poor school performance, high taxes, and horrible infant mortality rates – none of which can be disputed), either I overlook new initiatives that hold great promise or, unbelievably, that merely by observing how tough things are in the city, I make the problem worse!  Once, academics made fun of “boosterism” as a silly provincial trait.  Now, one comment in reaction to my essay said that by talking about the city’s problems and not its promise, I was in the business of tearing down Syracuse.  At LeMoyne, I was taught that the most dangerous thing to do in argument was to impute motives to your opponent.  Happily, one commenter read my piece as a “love letter to your home town.”

The conclusion:

I surely don’t have a pat answer to the question of how to make a new, scale, robust economy for Syracuse in which no fewer than 25,000 new private sector jobs must emerge.  Many of the people who populate the restaurants and lofts in downtown rely directly or indirectly on the university, the hospitals or state and local government for their livelihoods.  In the grand clockworks of economics these “industries” all depend on taxpayers to a greater or lesser extent.  That’s why, to be capable of shaping its future and not just surviving, the basis of any solution is that Syracuse will require a robust private sector that pays taxes. (Read More)

New York is not a right to work state, and manufacturers have been making an exodus out of the state for decades. But the government continues to grow.  Leadership at the state and local level routinely caves to the demands of the public employee unions without so much as a thought to the taxpayers. Property tax rates are among the highest in the nation. Ditto for the sales tax. Viable businesses that could bring a plethora of jobs to the area are told to take a hike, or at least put on hold indefinitely. In such an environment, the urban decay isn’t the least bit surprising. But it is tragic, and with the current political climate in Washington, DC this it’s soon to become a national tragedy.

Just as a side note: A couple that we’re acquainted with has a custom home in a desirable neighborhood. Their property taxes are pretty high and they would love to move to Florida. The only thing keeping them here is the husband’s pension. He works for the state, and can’t move until it’s time to retire. So for now they put their earnings back into the local economy, but as soon as that taxpayer funded pension comes through they’re out of here, taking New York taxpayer dollars with them. How many more blue state public workers do the same thing? It could explain why so many traditionally red states have become swing states.

Oh, and rather than coming up with ways to reduce the burden on private businesses and entrepreneurs, Mayor Stephanie Miner is spending her time crying wolf about sequester cuts. Why would anyone want to invest in her city when she makes the case that the city will wither even further without more government handouts?