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EYE ON THE PIE: Save our cities and towns from neglect

October 22, 2007

Whose face is on the dime? It's Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That's no arbitrary choice. FDR had polio as an adult. He fought back and became governor of New York and then the only four-term president of the United States.

For two decades, from 1938 forward, The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis campaigned to fight polio epidemics. Each January, children and adults contributed to the national "March of Dimes" to raise funds for research and treatment. FDR was the symbol of the campaign, a figure of hope for an otherwise dreadful, often fatal, disease.

After his death in 1945, the dime was redesigned to honor this great president and his work to combat polio. Within the next decade, effective vaccines were found for polio. So, the National Foundation changed its mission to fighting birth defects and, under the name March of Dimes, has been successful for 50 years.

This transition is a classic case of an effective agency remaining in existence beyond its initial success. Why not go out of business after the job is done? Because there is no reason to dismantle an organization that is well-known and proven to be competent.

Now we understand why the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an agency known for implementing misdirected policies, is changing into a "Department of Rural Affairs." American farm policy has been a disgrace and a joke for more than a generation. Congress has the USDA subsidize organizations and institutions that neither need nor deserve government support.

Try as it may, the USDA cannot keep the farm economy from shrinking in its relative importance. Farming does not keep pace with the growth of the American economy. Nor are we willing still to accept the idea that domestic farming is the essential backbone of our economy.

So where does that leave the USDA? If its historic mission is done, it has to have a new mission. Unlike the March of Dimes, it does not have a record of success, but it does have a congressional constituency that wants it to continue pumping money into "rural" districts.

There is the rub. What is rural? According to the U.S. Bureau of the Census, rural is that which is not urban. Unfortunately, the bureau does not do a good job of telling us what is urban. But who cares? We all know what "rural" means-anything the USDA chooses to fund.

Now this is good. The census of 2000 identified 24 percent of Indiana's population as rural. However, 36 percent of us lived outside any city or town. What's the difference? Some of us lived in unincorporated areas that were urban in nature, subdivisions with housing densities that were comparable to nearby urban areas. Another 5.6 percent of us lived in 400 cities and towns with fewer than 2,500 people. Are such places rural or urban?

What the funding agencies choose to find of consequence is what counts. If they can rationalize giving money to places with populations in excess of 10,000 or more because they "serve" rural populations, then so be it. We will benefit if old agencies stay alive by transforming themselves into something new that saves our cities and towns.

States and the federal government have instituted practices that destroy urban areas. In Indiana, larger cities and towns persistently are denied the powers they need to serve their citizens. The propertytax mess is laid at their door by the mismanagement and malignancy of the General Assembly. If the USDA and other agencies want to finance projects in our cities and towns because it helps the donors stay in existence, bring it on.



Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to mortonjmarcus@yahoo.com.
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