Politics of Equity and Growth - A Case Study of Rockford, Illinois

Author: Veal, Don-Terry
This book contributes to the literature on Public Finance and Urban Politics. It takes two normative ideas in the realm of academic debate and applies them to the case of Rockford, Illinois. It is concerned with the financially consequential areas of public policy, urban economic development and urban political economy. The principal elements of social equity and productive efficiency are described, examined, and used as a framework for evaluating whether public officials faithfully reflect distributive equity priorities in their limited discretion over revenue allocations.


“The postwar era has brought substantial change and transformation to America’s urban centers. Mass migration to suburbs and the relocation of industries and businesses radically undercut the fiscal foundations of city governments, while growing poverty and the lack of jobs in central cities increased the need for social services. Consequently, economic development policies aimed at recruiting new industries and revitalizing urban centers became a high priority for cities throughout the United States. This seemingly created a policy dilemma for urban governments, however. It was widely believed that costly redistributive policies to help the urban poor hinder economic development efforts by raising taxes to levels that would make a city unattractive to existing or new businesses. Thus, urban governments were assumed to face a wrenching policy dilemma of choosing between policies that promoted economic efficiency and growth and those that promoted social equity.

The strong pressure on city governments to emphasize and achieve economic development led to the theory of urban” growth machines.” This is that most cities come to be governed by coalitions or “regimes” between the business community and politicians because politicians believe that business support is necessary for the economic success that is vital for retaining political power. In the policy realm, such regimes focus upon promoting economic development, particularly large downtown construction projects, and ignore the needs of neighborhoods and of the poor and minority residents. These cross-pressures that force a choice between “equity” and “efficiency” can become quite harsh for African-American mayors. Given this rather pessimistic theoretical perspective upon urban politics, Dr. Don-Terry Veal’s case study of Rockford, Illinois presents more nuanced findings about the nature of urban politics.

Rockford historically was dominated by a small corporate elite led by a few powerful families and a Republican “political machine” that pursued business friendly policies and provided clearly inferior education to the poorer and predominantly minority west side of Rockford. Politically, power shifted with the victory of a “good government Democrat” as mayor in the 1970s. He was followed, in turn, by first a white, John McNamara, and then a black, Charles Box, who advocated more socially progressive policies. Yet, both McNamara and Box were pro-development and fiscally conservative. In addition, Rockford’s economic development continues to be strongly shaped by the decision of the old regime in the 1950s to place an interstate highway to the east of the city, thereby isolating the west side.

To a significant extent, therefore, the Rockford case is consistent with the “growth machine” thesis that urban political leaders, regardless of their original intentions, are forced to follow pro-development policies that marginalize minority and poor communities. Yet, Veal’s analysis found that both McNamara and especially Box pursued significant policies aimed at helping the city’s west side. Most prominently, the Community Development Fund for capital spending was quite disproportionately concentrated on the west. In addition, the development of an “enterprise zone” brought some new businesses to the area; and the equal distribution of important infrastructure spending by ward helped promote equity. The Rockford case, therefore, leads Veal to the important conclusions that efficiency and equity do not have to be considered as totally antithetical goals in economic development policy and that cities should explicitly engage in “equity planning.” These are valuable arguments for the study of urban politics, as the dynamics of globalization create continuing harsh pressures for economic restructuring many American cities.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Cal Clark, Alumni Professor and MPA Director, Auburn University

“This is an excellent treatment of a case study on economic development illustrating the argument between distributive equity and productive efficiency in Rockford, Illinois. The arguments are well structured and the practical recommendations for Rockford are useful to cities everywhere.” – Dr. George Amedee, Associate Professor of Political Science, Southern University at New Orleans

“The author presents an objective approach that compares what elected officials promise and what they deliver. The book makes a critical step towards distinguishing between talk and action when dealing with public spending priorities.” – Dr. Keenan Grenell, Interim Assistant Provost of Multicultural Affairs and former MPA Director, Auburn University

“A compelling combination of ideas focusing on issues relating to fiscal decision making and economic development in municipal government. The book has tremendous implications for cities nationally and internationally as well.” – Dr. Ian Jacobs, Executive Director, The North American Consortium for Higher Education in Cape Town, South Africa

Table of Contents

Preface by Cal Clark
1. Introduction
2. Literature Review
3. The Case Study
4. Community Development Fund (CDF) of the Capital Improvement Program
5. Conclusion