A City Built on Debt: Federal Retrenchment, Municipal Finance, and Inequality in Dallas since the 1960s

Colin McGrath, University of Pennsylvania


Through a case study of Dallas, this Dissertation examines how federal policy during the 1970s and 1980s shaped municipal finance and the urban political economy. Using primary sources from federal archives, Part I tracks shifts in federal programs in the 1970s and 1980s that reduced direct aid to cities while providing local governments greater autonomy. Part I argues that the federal government encouraged cities to use debt to fund housing and urban renewal programs, but did little to regulate cities’ uses of debt. Part II uses city archives and historical newspapers to show how shifts in federal policy gave private investors the power to mold local urban policy. In the 1980s, Dallas residents won civil rights lawsuits that increased the racial diversity of the city council. But in response to fiscal strain, city leaders worked with private investors and developers to attract businesses to office buildings in downtown Dallas. The city used tax increment financing bonds and other forms of debt to stimulate housing developments for wealthy professionals while displacing poor residents. The city also invested heavily in its police force and criminalized homelessness while funding artistic and cultural spaces. Residents found that courts were not helpful in combating these injustices, in part because federal programs did not regulate redevelopment projects financed with municipal debt. Dallas’s interaction with state and federal government illustrates how community activism, federal law, and private investors and developers shaped land use in the city after the 1960s.

Subject Area

Public policy|American history|Public administration

Recommended Citation

McGrath, Colin, "A City Built on Debt: Federal Retrenchment, Municipal Finance, and Inequality in Dallas since the 1960s" (2019). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI27539645.