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Equality, Public Policy and Public Services: The Underclass Hypothesis and the Limits to Equality

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If the 1960s represented the era of a dramatic attention to massive urban crises, the 1970s sets its sights lower, focusing increasingly on the production and consumption, distribution and delivery, and equity and efficiency issues in urban public services. As Yates remarks, ‘it is difficult to see how a government can solve its dramatic problems if it cannot solve its routine ones,’ and the distribution of public services represents a critical issue in policy analysis and judicial policy. The case of Hawkins v. Town of Shaw inaugurated litigation to redress discrimination in the distribution of public services. The resuscitation of equalitarian issues, prompted in part by the educational output literature, points up the normative, as well as the constitutional issues in service delivery questions.

The most commonplace hypothesis in the discussion of urban public services is the underclass hypothesis, the suspicion that service provision is a function of the racial, class or political traits of particular neighbourhoods. Evidence, though still limited in time and place, is beginning to appear on the underclass hypothesis, and it is less than definitive. In this paper, the hypothesis is tested in a city, San Antonio, Texas, whose attributes make it propitious for a useful test. Heavily minority, and quite poor, it also exhibits a pattern of highly centralized political power. The paper examines data on the intra-municipal distribution of two services, fire protection and parks. Though the results of the analysis show that distributions may be described as ‘unpatterned inequality’, they are not clearly associated with variations in neighbourhood underclass concentrations. Such analysis raises, though, some fundamental questions about the larger concept of equality as a normative standard for distributing urban services. These questions, including the problem of operationalizing equality and some constitutional issues in service equalization, are also addressed.

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