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Report raises thorny questions about Sunbelt migration

A presidential panel's recent call for aiding migration to the Sunbelt raised key questions that will long outlast the roars of disapproval with the report. "We cannot abandon our urban areas," said President Carter, after receiving the report just before leaving office.

Rep. Jack F. Kemp (R) of New York says of the report: President Reagan "will not write off the Northeast and depressed cities."

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Republican and Democratic Northern politicians blasted the report as unfair to Northern cities. Meanwhile, Southern politicians remained noticeably silent.

Questions raised in the report by the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties are thorny political ones about how people live -- and where:

* What should be done when a city begins to lose population? Is such loss healthy or unhealthy for a city?

* Who is migrating to the Sunbelt states: mostly the wealthy? Are there barriers hindering migration by the poor?

* How effective are current federal urban aid programs?

* Is urban sprawl necessarily bad?

It is the role of presidential commissions to "legitimize" controversial ideas, says Donald A. Hicks, the sociologist and political economist who authored the most controversial part of the commission's report, the "Urban America" section.

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In an interview here, Mr. Hicks expressed concern that some of the criticism was coming from people who had not read the report or who put local loyalties above national ones. For one thing, he pointed out, the report does not call for abandoning Northern or Midwestern cities in favor of Sunbelt cities.

Helping job seekers get to jobs in another part of the country benefits all concerned, he suggested. One city loses the burden of an unemployed person; the other gains a new taxpayer, he says.

But urban revenue sharing and political representation in Congress are based on numbers. And cities with declining populations are often left supporting huge, expensive road, light, and water systems and other services.

"Planned shrinkage" is the challenge facing cities with declining populations , says George Sternlieb, director of the Center for Urban Policy Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

For example, says Professor Sternlieb, New York owns thousands of abandoned or tax delinquent homes and apartments. Many are vacant, but many have one or a few tenants still living in them. Maintaining all of them is expensive, so the city would save money grouping tenants into fewer buildings.

Another shrinkage tactic, says Hicks, is to cut back on the size of public employee unions as city population declines. Growing cities should try to keep as many city services as possible contracted with private firms to avoid being saddled with too large a city payroll in case the city's population later drops.

Most major Northern and Midwestern cities lost population during the 1970s, and most major Sunbelt cities gained. Atlanta had a 14 percent decline -- while its metropolitan area grew by 44 percent.

"Cities are not so much dying as they are transforming," says Hicks. A city can be healthier after a population decline if it takes proper steps, he says.

The massive migration to the Sunbelt states has been made up mostly of the nonpoor, according to urban and population experts. Nationalizing welfare and unemployment benefits would remove two key barriers to the migration of the poor to jobs, the commission concluded.

To make migration even easier, Hicks suggests, the US could pay some of the moving costs of the jobless to another area.

But how many of the poor could move? Even with much better job availability information to the public than the US has ever provided, says Census Bureau analyst Larry Long, many of the poor are handicapped, aged, or have young children. Would they be able to go and be employable? he asks.

Hicks questions the effectiveness of current urban aid programs and suggests less go to build or repair things and more be given to people directly -- a "people vs. place" funding priority. This would include a guaranteed minimum income for the employed and guaranteed minimum welfare for those who cannot work , the urban report says.

As for urban sprawl, there are some good features, says Hicks. Heating and cooling techniques in new buildings often are more efficient than those of old downtown buildings. Strip development, however, one of the kinds of urban sprawl is considered by many to be an eyesore.

And a recent US Department of Agriculture study found that rural commuters actually drove fewer miles than urban ones -- a sur prise to many.

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