Why coronavirus relief for cities is not a ‘blue-state bailout’

In Pittsburgh, we’ve long proved our economic resilience and responsibility, but we can’t bear the COVID-19 burden alone

Cites like Pittsburgh cannot solely bear the burden of a once-in-a-lifetime financial emergency brought about by the most abrupt economic and public health crisis in a century, Lamb writes. (John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images file photo)
Cites like Pittsburgh cannot solely bear the burden of a once-in-a-lifetime financial emergency brought about by the most abrupt economic and public health crisis in a century, Lamb writes. (John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images file photo)
Posted February 26, 2021 at 6:00am

As Congress gets ready to vote on the latest round of COVID-19 relief, I am grateful to see the inclusion of direct support to cities. Thankfully, congressional Democrats have included funding to states, localities, tribes and territories in the current package. Nearly a year and two major relief measures since the pandemic first hit, no issue has received more unexplainable pushback.

Cities are the engines of regional economies. According to 2010 research from McKinsey, 85 percent of U.S. GDP was generated in 259 American cities. Urban areas are employment centers, medical hubs and the backbone of the social safety net. Cities have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. The slow rebound of our cities after the Great Recession delayed the recovery of the American economy. In Pittsburgh, our universities, hospitals, businesses, nonprofits and public workforce benefit the entire region.

Dubbed the “blue-state bailout” by its opponents, direct aid to local governments has been maligned as a handout to politically progressive, urban communities unable to manage their own finances. Nowhere could this line of thinking be less true than in Pittsburgh, where our history is a testament to economic resilience, resurgence and responsibility.

Pittsburgh was once the eighth-most populous city in the United States, home to its own stock exchange, wealthy industrialists and a nucleus of organized labor. By mid-century, we produced half the nation’s steel output. Our steel found its way into World War II fighter-bombers, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. Yet by 2003, after decades of population loss, industry decline and contraction of our once vast tax base, the city was forced to enter into “financially distressed status” and placed under state oversight.

Pittsburgh never received a bailout. Instead, hundreds of city employees were laid off, community programs were slashed and taxes were raised. Our credit rating was downgraded to “junk” status, the only city in the country with that designation. After a protracted 14-year recovery that followed the previous painful two decades, Pittsburgh crawled out of state oversight and enacted reform measures to prevent subsequent economic emergencies.

In Pittsburgh, we got it right. No economic recovery is perfect, but we have strategically diversified our tax base, attracted good companies to support well-paying jobs, paid down our debt and, in the last few years, built a rainy day fund, which will be depleted entirely before June.

The time is ripe for direct relief now to American cities. The alternatives are untenable. Quite simply, cities and their residents cannot solely bear the burden of this once-in-a-lifetime financial emergency brought about by the most abrupt economic and public health crisis in a century.

If this plight is any different from our last, it’s only because hundreds of cities like Pittsburgh are facing the same crisis. Without direct federal support to stop the bleeding, the economic hurt from COVID-19 will make municipal survival painful and eliminate the opportunity for a full fiscal recovery.

Michael Lamb, a Democrat, is serving his fourth term as city controller of Pittsburgh.