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In contrast to Edward Banfield’s and other pluralist analyses of urban political processes, in his important book City Limits Paul Peterson defines cities’ interests in a more narrow aspect. Paul Peterson is professor of Government at Harvard University. Also, he is the coauthor of the fundamental Race and Authority in Urban Politics and the author of School Politics, Chicago Style and The Politics of School Reform.
In his City Limits Peterson claims that there are limits to service obligations that cities can safely take on. Cities face a dilemma: on the one hand, they have to work out adequate requirements to provide services; on the other, they have to provide the tax loads that can be easily imposed on their cities. This dilemma needs urgent consideration, for when law quality services are provided, the quality of city life worsens; when too many and too varied services are provided, the taxing requirements imposed on citizens will drive them beyond the physical limits of the city.
Cities must provide services to the poor. In order to fund these services cities need to tax productive populations but if the tax is too high they will have to exit the city to find more promising opportunities. As there are spatial limits of cities, they cannot extend their taxing reach. Thus, the cities’ role is to provide the bare essentials along with encouraging economic growth.
Peterson suggests the following solution to the dilemma described above: to allow the federal government to provide redistributive services and focus on their provision as well as on the provision of regularly services.
In his study Peterson suggests three types of city policies: developmental, redistributive, and allocation. As far as business considerations in the city are concerned, they dominate the first two but not the third policy type.
Developmental and redistributive policies “are affected by the fear that extensive social welfare spending will require an increase in tax levels, adversely affecting a city’s attractiveness to business.” (Ross and Levine, 2005, p. 111) Developmental policy deals with matters that directly affect the economic position of the city (subsidies, land-use plans, the roads and other infrastructure), governmental officials anticipate business needs. Redistributive policy (social welfare, health, housing and various programs of assistance to poor people) is at risk of increase of tax level that will negatively affect a city’s attractiveness in terms of business.
As for the third type of policy that Peterson singles out, it is not directly related to business affairs. The decisions that allocation policy embraces, such as how library books and fire stations are distributed throughout the city, do not require businessmen intrusion, therefore, a city becomes relatively free to the demands of citizens (Ross and Levine, 2005, p. 111).
Rose and Levine’s survey of the nation’s mayors shows that mayors prefer economic development programs over social welfare policy that matches Peterson’s predictions. Peterson’s theory is close to economic determinism when the author states that cities, acting on their need to maintain their economic viability, are led to cater to their business community whereas social welfare, health, and housing services are constantly neglected.
According to the survey mentioned above, mayors are more willing to spend money on programs for economic development rather than on allocative services. Social welfare, health, housing and other redistributive services are not expected to get special mayors’ attention (Ross and Levine, 2005, p. 111).
Peterson’s policy typology helps to explain the primacy of economic development policies on big cities agendas. But critics of his theory argue that “a locality has little real alternative other than to cater to the needs and demands of business.” (Ross and Levine, 2005, p. 112) For instance, Ross and Levine claim that though the pressures to respond to the needs of business are never ending, there is no simple economic determinism.
The authors suggest that mayors can reframe increased spending on schools (that Peterson sees as redistributive) as a means of local economic development. Education spending may turn to have positive developmental effects. Subsidized day care is not a mere redistributive program for women and children, but if professionally organized, it may turn to increase a city’s attractiveness to business.
Further, the critics state that Peterson’s claim that policies beneficial for cities contribute to prosperity of all residents is overstated. On the contrary, there is no unitary city interest in pursuing growth (Ross and Levine, 2005, p. 113).
Summarizing we should say that despite of the overstatements that Peterson’s theory has it admits the crucial tendency in contemporary municipal policy: due to a city’s competitiveness that mayors always strive for they often initiate policies that care of the needs of the business communities disregarding the needs of other layers of the society. As a result, city politics is a limited policy. The most valuable achievement of Peterson’s research is rooted in this conclusion.
Ross, B. H., & Levine, M. A. (2005). Urban politics: Power in metropolitan America. Wadsworth Publishing.