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Moynihan’s Policy Vision 40 Years On

Already noted in this space was the glaring omission of Daniel Patrick Moynihan from Planetizen’s list of “Top 100 Urban Thinkers.”

It was 40 years ago in the fall of 1969 that his essay “Toward a National Urban Policy” appeared in the Public Interest (It later became the basis for a 1970 book). What’s notable, considering that Moynihan was writing from his perch in the Nixon White House following massive civil unrest in the nation’s cities, is the piece’s shelf life.

In it he lays out 10 “fundaments of urban policy” because, in typical waggish fashion, “with respect to codes of human behavior, eleven precepts are too many and nine too few.” Many of them could be written today with little need for updating. To wit:

“The federal government should constantly encourage and provide incentives for the reorganization of local government in response to the reality of metropolitan conditions.”


“The federal government must develop and put into practice far more effective incentive systems than now exist whereby state and local governments, and private interests too, can be led to achieve the goals of federal programs.”

And, given Moynihan’s overarching commitment to data-driven policymaking:

“The federal government must provide more and better information concerning urban affairs, and should sponsor extensive and sustained research into urban problems.”

His use of the term “metropolitan” in the first quote foreshadows what might be the only fundamental change to the piece needed to update it to today. As cities and suburbs have evolved into single economic units, it’s not so easy to parse them by traditional measures. The metropolitan reality is that more poor people live in suburbs than cities, and more and more immigrants establish housekeeping in suburbs without ever having lived in cities.

But forty years on, that’s a minor quibble. The piece remains required reading.