As we pointed out recently, from a fiscal point, there has never been a golden age for American cities. The history of cities in this country is also a history of reoccurring fiscal crisis. Our cities seem to have been in hard financial times since they first grew from small towns and added modern services.
Early Urbanism in the U.S.
There were few real cities in the U.S. until the mid-1800s. City growth was tied to industrialization. Before that, professionalized city services and major capital projects were few and far between. This kept city spending low along with the risk of overextending financially.
The founders did not comprehended cities in the Constitution, which limited its attention to powers of the national and state government. The 10th Amendment reserved rights for states to set policy on the remaining, unnamed issues. States focused their attention on enabling counties to provide limited services to the mostly rural population.
Throughout the century, local communities lobbied state governments to continually increase the scope of city responsibilities. Population growth, new wealth and new technology made cities more complex and challenging to live in. As towns grew, states supported citizen-led charter initiatives to create new cities.
By the end of the 19th century, cities had added the authority to provide the range of services, that a modern urban dweller would recognize and expect: water, sewer, streets, police, fire, waste, parks, libraries, and so on. At the same time, state governments had imposed severe restrictions on local governments that prevented cities from directly administering those services. The most common arrangement was for state legislatures to appoint boards of local citizens who would administer the budgets and staff of city departments. Even the nation’s greatest metropolis, New York, in the 1890s only had direct control over a fraction of its budget.
State control was imposed to establish political party control at the local level. Cities were now important and city jobs and contracts were key prizes in political patronage systems. State control was also motivated by a series of municipal bankruptcies from poorly thought out and executed capital and economic development projects.
Cities were growing and their economies were becoming more complex economically and, as mentioned, their citizen and business leaders were seeking more modern services and infrastructure. Under our fiscal federalism system, localities were in keen competition with each other. They began taking on increasing amounts of debt. A series of financial crises and a major economic slow-down or depression in the 1870s revealed the precarious state of these cities finances. The response was state legislatures imposing those restrictions on city operations.
Modern City Financial Crises
Things didn’t improve much in the 20th century. The public administration revolution brought a more professional civil service to the national and some state governments. The initiative had less impact on localities. Local accounting practices were still poor. This made oversight very difficult. initiatives at There have been a series of financial crisis phases in American cities so that it is questionable whether there has ever been a time when cities were financially sustainable.
Localities also innovated ways to circumvent state debt restrictions. Again, much of the debt was for capital projects, but increasingly cities turned to debt to fund their newly professionalized police and fire departments and to support growing park and library systems. Poor management practices and lack of reporting or oversight requirements meant cities were operating recklessly. This behavior was exposed by the Great Depression.
Following WWII there was another, more surprising fiscal crisis era. Our metropolitan areas were generally booming. The problem, however was that within metropolitan areas, central cities were reaching their peak population. They became land-locked, unable to annex land because they were being surrounded by newly incorporating suburban cities. At the same time, older central cities were losing middle-class households to the suburbs. In addition, there was increasing out-migration from older cities to southern and western states. These changes brought about a period of sever central city financial crisis, especially in older regions of the country.
In the last half of the 20th century, the sunbelt boomed as formerly small cities grew into large multimodal metropolitan areas. New suburban expansion in the form of homebuilding and a retail explosion fueled city coffers in the South and West. Throughout the period, many older cities either continued to decline. As in the past, economic recessions revealed that U.S. cities were not so financially sustainable, even in the Sunbelt.
The 2001 and Great Recession finally saw a change in municipal philosophy. Cities were no longer able or willing cover financial crises with a mixture of tax increases and budget cuts. Cities North, South and West used mostly budget cuts to get through the dotcom recession. The situation was even worse in the Great Recession. Throughout the 21st Century, city spending levels bounced up and down, but in most cities they have not broken through to new highs. It appears that cities seem to have entered a period of sustained fiscal stress in the good and bad years.
Given this timeline, we can see that there have been city financial crises as long as there have been modern cities. As cities have grown, they have continually run up against external economic pressures that challenge the traditional ways of doing business. Changes in the larger economy have continuously threatened cities as they first scrambled to modernize to serve an industrial population, and in recent decades, as population migration and economic change pulled the rug our from under these cities again. What can be done about it?
The answers are likely to be different for each community. Our brief fiscal history here only hinted at some of the many causes of fiscal stress for U.S. cities. The solutions will involve addressing the ways cities operate, their financial practices and the way they deliver services. A better way forward also means shifting away from the high-cost, subsidized economic development practices that more than once have undermined the fiscal health of communities they were attempting to help. In the following weeks, we will take a closer look at specific fiscal threats to our cities and what can be done about them.