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49


L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 49, June 30, 1999

Death of a Small City

by Michael W. Gallagher
mwglaw@pond.com

Special to The Libertarian Enterprise

           Government constantly tells us that it is there to help the poor. With cities, it says that it is there to help poor cities, and therefore their residents. However, while doing all of this promising, it sometimes forgets to admit its own participation in urban destruction. The following is a true illustration.
           Montgomery County is the richest county in Pennsylvania, and one of the ten or twenty richest in the United States, according to the last census. It includes part of the area known as the "Main Line", home to members of the Dupont family, many of the Pews, (Sun Oil), and, in general, enough "old money" to refinance the national debt. It also includes a borough named Norristown.
           Incorporated in 1824, Norristown is the county seat of Montgomery County. It is 3.2 square miles in extent, with a population officially listed at 30,000, and with more accurate estimates reaching 36,0000. Sited on the Schuylkill River, Norristown was a prosperous mill town in the last century. Of course, like most old mill towns in the northeast, it fell on harder times after the Second World War, as jobs went south, and later overseas. Its shopping districts eventually lost out to shopping centers and, later, to suburban malls. The wealthier citizens moved to places like Plymouth Meeting, or Radnor. Still, it remained a working-class town, with people secure in their roots in the community, proud of their homes, and happy with their lives. The town was relatively stable, and had chances of eventually reviving itself, as other, similar, communities in the Philadelphia area have done. Until government destroyed the town.
           Montgomery County, like most counties, has traditionally been run by its more wealthy and influential members. The ruling members of the party in power come from places like Radnor or Villanova. They do not come from poorer towns, like Norristown Why is that a problem? Because richer communities traditionally dump their problems on the poorer ones. For example, police in richer towns run the vagrants out of town, often transporting them to poorer towns, even though that is illegal in Pennnsylvania. Of course, that sort of thing has gone on for many decades, and only adds up to a small number of people. The big numbers come from systematic dumping, of a kind that takes so-called "anti-poverty" programs to arrange.
           "Section 8" is the common name given to a part of the federal poverty laws, which pays private landlords to house public housing clients. The "client" receives a welfare voucher which entitles him or her to receive a subsidy equal to 80% of their rent. The subsidy is paid directly to the landlord, rather than to the client. The program is administered by the county in which the housing exists, which also sets the value of the subsidy the subsidy is limited by federal law to an amount equal to 80% of the community average. The clinker in this case, however, is that the county government determines how the average is calculated. In Montgomery County, the county itself is the sample "community". In other words, they take the average of rents in the entire county, and set the subsidy limit at 80% of that average. So, a landlord in a town where rents are lower can actually get more for his or her property from Section 8 than from the open market. Further, there's the question of where the community and county allow properties to register for Section 8. In Montgomery County, a county thousands of square miles in extent and with hundreds of thousands of citizens, more than 50% of the Section 8-approved properties are located in the 3.2 square-mile area of Norristown. Almost all of the rest are in two other towns, Pottstown and Lansdale. If someone falls on hard times while living in one of the wealthier communities and applies for Section 8 benefits, they are quietly told to move to Norristown.
           Further, since the county administers the other anti-poverty programs, and since county leaders do not want them in their own back yards, they put them somewhere else. Guess where. So Norristown, and to a lesser extent, Pottstown and Lansdale, get all of the welfare offices, the legal aid offices, the "anti-poverty" programs, etc. So the clients and potential clients have an even greater reason to settle around Norristown. So many things that others do not want have been put in Norristown that someone nicknamed the borough "Nimbytown", i.e., everything that someone said "Not In My Back Yard" about, ended up in there.
           Because of all of this, the children with the most problems end up in the Norristown Area School District. The citizens most likely to become involved with the police (and thus drive up the cost of police services) end up in Norristown. Crime increases almost exponentially. Drug dealing has become almost rampant in the business districts after dark, as has prostitution. (There are almost no real businesses still open after dark in the Borough, with the exception of a few pizza shops and mini-marts and a lot of bars.) In general, the business districts are failing. Though Norristown is the county seat, with the county courthouse and offices here, even law firms are leaving for the outlying communities. Individuals who had lived in the Borough their entire lives, whose families have lived there for generations, became afraid, and moved away. Real estate prices have dropped in the borough over the last ten years, (while going up in nearby communities), making more properties available for "investors" (read "slumlords") to purchase at bargain rates, and subdivide and turn into cheap apartments and rooming houses many eligible for Section 8, of course. It becomes a vicious circle. The heads of county government are happy, of course. All of the problems they wish to avoid at home they dump in Norristown. So, government has worked for them. They have used the power of government to make their own lives more comfortable and secure. Of course, the people of Norristown have seen their homes drop in value; they are afraid to go out after dark; they have had part of their lives stolen from them.
           I will be the first to admit that things like Section 8 were created for all of the best reasons. It was done with a sense of charity, and a desire to help people. However, intent matters not; results count. The results are that poor people have been concentrated largely in a few towns, taking them away from potential jobs and opportunities-which they want just as much as you do. Because a proportion of the poor are, statistically, more likely to become involved in crime, such as drug use, the crime rates in those towns go up. There is not enough money for schools, and so education of the young suffers (Pennsylvania still funds their public schools primarily through local real estate taxes). Though real estate prices have gone down, taxes and user fees for resident homeowners have continued to go up, to try to fund services, (primarily police and schools). More residents give up and move away if they can manage to sell their homes, and absorb the losses involved. Business and wage taxes go up even more, so more businesses leave. You develop a vicious cycle of tax increases, followed by income losses, as businesses and individuals move out. But the wealthy and powerful do not have the poor in their neighborhoods and schools. They do not have to increase their taxes, to pay for the education of the poor. They do not have to pay to put more police on the streets, to prevent increases in crime. (In fact, one of the richer townships in the area, Worcester Township, does not even have a police department, preferring to have the State Police protect them, for free). In places like Montgomery County the "anti-poverty" programs like Section 8 have helped to ghettoize the poor, and insulate the powerful from the results. And because they are not directly affected, those in power have no interest in changing the status quo.
           And so Norristown slowly dies. And nobody there wins.


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