KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The downtown prosperity here on a Saturday night seems overwhelming. Thousands spill from a gleaming new arena into a bustling entertainment district, where lines snake outside nightclubs selling $7 beer.
However, venture a mile east in this city of 450,000 and the longstanding problems of urban America are on bleak display. Blight. Chronically underperforming schools. Housing that can't meet the needs of poor families. Joblessness. Crumbling streets and sewers. Racially balkanized neighborhoods. A record pace of murders.
"This is a nationwide urban phenomenon that most people don't want to talk about," said Philip Olson, an urban sociologist at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. "Kansas City is pretty typical in terms of racial segregation, which affects the schools and a host of other problems in the urban core. . . . It's the same in all of our big cities."
Four in five Americans live in metropolitan areas, twice the proportion of a century ago. How John McCain and Barack Obama would tackle America's urban issues split the two candidates in a classic fissure between Republican and Democrat.
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Obama sees a larger role for the federal government both in helping cities pay their bills and in finding ways to help people out of poverty. While McCain talks supportively about some of the same programs, he's less likely to promise tax dollars and he's more hopeful that tax breaks will power the economy with enough energy to invigorate cities.
"Both candidates could do more and have more specificity about what they'd do about our cities," said Don Mathis, the president of Community Action Partnership, a social service network of more than 1,000 agencies across the country. "It might be a harder case for McCain to make now that the likelihood of an economic boom has run into trouble."
By the same token, Obama has conceded that the financial crisis that rumbled down Wall Street and crashed on Pennsylvania Avenue will make it more difficult for Washington to pay for many of the government programs he's championed in his campaign.
Still, analysts see ways to look at the rhetoric of the candidates' speeches and the spotty issues papers on their campaign Websites to find differences.
It begins in tone. McCain has nurtured a reputation in the Senate as a budget hawk, opposing legislative earmarks and appropriations that hand federal dollars over to local governments. He contends that he'll be able to wipe out the federal budget deficit by the end of his first term.
Obama, in contrast, has said he that expects to shrink deficits though he's said that balancing the budget within four years is unrealistic.
Their Web sites differ dramatically in the way they talk about urban issues. Obama promises more money for community development block grants that cities have wide discretion in spending. He offers a trust fund to develop affordable housing in mixed-income neighborhoods. And the Democrat promises a "national infrastructure reinvestment bank" to expand federal spending on transportation.
McCain's Web site is silent on the same issues. That's a reflection, analysts said, of the way the Republican looks to the private sector for solutions rather than government subsidies.
Consider the Early Head Start program that offers low-income families medical care and day-care centers from pregnancy through age 3.
Today there's room for just 3 percent of eligible children. The problem? Money. It costs about $11,000 a year for the child-care and other services offered by Early Head Start. It's been lauded by social activists for the way it frees parents to work and for how it gives poor children improved health and a foundation for starting school. Obama would quadruple the money for the program.
Christine Kim, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group, cites McCain's support for school vouchers that would give poor parents greater choice about where they educate their children as one way the Republican would improve cities.
"McCain has also spoken a great deal about the importance of education as a way to success," Kim said.
Obama doesn't support classic voucher programs — typically opposed by teachers unions — but he backs greater federal funding of charter schools in states that impose greater accountability on those charter schools.
Kim just completed a study that identified family stability — especially the presence of married parents — as a key to economic mobility for both children and their parents. Sure enough, both McCain and Obama speak about how stronger families can strengthen the social fabric to escape poverty, better educate children and gird neighborhoods against crime and decay.
Yet getting people to marry and stick together isn't something Uncle Sam has had much success at.
"True economic recovery is not going to happen if you don't involve families, people who are going to work," said Danielle Ewen of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington think tank. "Those families can't go to work if they can't find child care. That requires money."
Others say an over-emphasis on poverty programs misunderstands cities. They argue that improvements to public transportation — such as Kansas City's pursuit of federal dollars to propel plans for a light rail system — or repairs to streets and sewers are vitally important. And, said urban affairs professor George Galster of Wayne State University, there's no escaping the costs.
"Obama talks about the common good, and about paying for these things," Galster said. "McCain talks about private actions and individuals making things happen. . . . There's a real difference there."
(Canon is a national correspondent for The Kansas City Star)
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