THE problems of the cities are virtually invisible in this fall's campaign. Neither presidential candidate has made a point of visiting decaying urban neighborhoods to underline his commitment to revitalizing the country's centers of population, culture, and business. And this despite the explosion of South-Central Los Angeles a mere five months ago.
The reason is demographics. National campaigns are no longer won or lost in the cities. Nor are cities the unchallenged seats of commerce as in decades past. Both people and businesses have migrated to the suburbs.
But political strategy aside, the cities remain the places where America's future social cohesiveness and economic competitiveness must largely be shaped. Cities are still the great melting pots, with new immigrants from Asia and Latin America rapidly changing the mix.
The L.A. riot underscored the familiar urban problems: crime and violence, economic listlessness, the weakening of schools and family life. The candidates diligently attack these issues but not in the context of aid for the cities. That's reasonable to a point. The cities' difficulties, after all, will be eased by a stronger economy, effective school reform, and equitable health care. What's needed is not a new urban policy, per se, but a recognition that urban problems must be addressed as an unavoidabl e part of the country's larger picture. For instance:
* Economic revival. The National League of Cities estimates that in the next few years 50 million Americans will enter the work force ill-prepared. Many of these people will be young Hispanics and blacks; they'll form a majority of future American workers. A competitive America has to give these young people the same opportunities afforded other children. They can be helped through Head Start pre-school programs, intensive Job Corps training, and creative approaches to choice in public education. But suc h programs need a huge boost in political backing and funding.
Both President Bush and Governor Clinton give lip service to these needs. The president's Education 2000 program is a good blueprint, and the local-initiative philosophy espoused by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp can help city dwellers get on their feet. Similarly, Mr. Clinton's emphasis on public investment in infrastructure could improve both the job outlook and the long-range viability of cities.
But both candidates should avoid narrowing their "urban policy" into a single cure-all - whether enterprise-zone tax incentives or infrastructure repair.
* The burden of poverty. The cities have a disproportionate number of the country's poor. Public-assistance programs for low-income Americans are fraying as pinched state governments cut back on welfare. At the same time, employment opportunities in many cities have dwindled. Both candidates favor blending public assistance with a requirement that people find work. "Workfare" makes sense in theory. But it has to be coupled with a commitment to training, job placement, child care, and, not least, an effor t to increase the mobility of inner-city people so they can reach more plentiful jobs beyond depressed neighborhoods.
* Crime and law enforcement. Crime lures urban youth and undercuts the ability of cities to retain or attract businesses and middle-class residents. Strict enforcement is a prerequisite if the fear of crime is to be lifted from people's lives. But political maneuvering to appear "tough on crime" doesn't come to grips with underlying issues. Mr. Bush is again ticking off statistics of prisoners paroled in his opponent's state. Clinton backs capital punishment. Though both men claim to embrace such reforms
as "community policing," which increases foot patrols and builds a more cooperative relationship between police departments and communities, they don't actually talk much about them. Why not?
Urban experts agree that the problems of the cities must be addressed from a variety of angles. Jobs, failing schools, crime, tax equity, infrastructure decay - they all come together in America's urban centers. Suburban voters may not want to hear about the cities. But a presidential campaign that purports to be about the economy while ignoring the economy's crucial urban component doesn't really do justice to voters anywhere.