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Scranton, PA and the failures of top-down planning

by Adam Millsap on September 22, 2015

in City Life, Economic Policy, Public Finance

City officials in Scranton, PA are concerned that a recently released U.S. census map used as a basis for distributing federal grant money doesn’t reflect reality. The map was created using 2010 census data and identifies which neighborhoods meet the U.S. government’s criteria for low-to-moderate-income classification. Such neighborhoods are eligible to receive Community Development Block grant (CDBG) funding.

Scranton Councilman Wayne Evans stated that:

“A lot of us feel that the map is inaccurate, knowing the neighborhoods like we do,”

The city is hoping to conduct their own survey of the area and then use the results to petition the federal government to change the designations of the areas city officials believe are misclassified so they can receive funding.

This situation is a great example of the importance of local knowledge. Economist F.A. Hayek wrote the seminal paper on the importance of local knowledge in 1945. In his book Doing Bad by Doing Good, economist Chris Coyne builds on Hayek’s idea and defines the “planner’s problem” as “the inability of nonmarket participants to access relevant knowledge regarding how to allocate resources in a welfare-maximizing way in the face of a variety of competing, feasible alternatives.” The primary goal of the CDBG program is to create viable urban communities. In order to accomplish this a top-down planner needs to take certain steps: 1) the place to be developed needs to be identified and the goals of the development need to be established; 2) the availability of the resources needed for the development project needs to be confirmed and the resources need to be allocated; and 3) a feedback mechanism needs to be identified that can confirm that the goals are met. If any of these steps are not taken effective economic development will not occur.

As the example from Scranton shows, sometimes the planner – in this case the Department of Housing and Urban Development – fails to carry out step 1 effectively: Scranton officials and HUD can’t even agree on the place to be developed. Instead of letting the local officials who are knowledgeable about the area allocate the CDBGs, HUD officials in Washington bypass them by identifying the areas that need help via census data. Sometimes this approach might work, but when it doesn’t resources will be given to relatively prosperous areas while poorer areas are ignored.

The misallocation of resources will be an issue as long as the ability to allocate the funds is severed from the people with local knowledge of the communities. Cities and municipalities are receiving more and more of their revenues from the state and federal government, as seen in the graph below for Pennsylvania, and this contributes to situations like the one in Scranton.

PA intergov grants

As shown in the graph, total intergovernmental revenue and state intergovernmental to local governments in Pennsylvania increased in real terms from 1992 to 2012 (measured on the left vertical axis). In 1992, total intergovernmental revenue to local governments was equal to 59% of the revenue that local governments raised on their own (the orange line measured on the right vertical axis). In 2012 it was equal to 69%, an increase of 10 percentage points. This means that local governments became more dependent on higher-level governments for funding.

Funding from higher-level governments usually comes with restrictions and conditions that must be met, which prevents local citizens from using their local knowledge to alleviate the problems in their community. The further away decisions makers are from the region, the more likely they are to misidentify the problem areas. In Scranton’s case, city officials now have to expend scarce resources conducting their own survey and petitioning the federal government to change the neighborhood classifications.

Local knowledge is important and it should be utilized by decision makers. State and federal governments should limit intergovernmental transfers and allow local communities to keep more of their own tax dollars, which they can then use to address their own local issues.

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