The Public Interest

The war on cities

James Q. Wilson

Spring 1966

President Johnson’s special message to Congress on improving the nation’s cities was a notable document, both for what it said and what it did not. It was, in many respects, the sanest and most thoughtful presidential statement on “the urban problem” ever issued. It avoided most of those rhetorical absurdities which link the future of Western civilization with the maintenance of the downtown business district; it stressed the primacy of human and social problems over purely physical ones; and it conceded with great candor the dilemmas, contradictions, and inadequacies of past and present federal programs. (Indeed, the first third of the message could easily have been written by any one of several critics of federal urban renewal and public housing programs.) Many of the proposals made by the President were entirely in keeping with a concern for the problems of disadvantaged people living in cities. Thus, legislation to bar racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, and appropriations to implement the rent supplement program (whereby through direct subsidy the poor are given a better chance to acquire decent housing on the private market) were requested.

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