Scholarly Publications

Structurally adjusting: Narratives of fiscal crisis in four US cities


The Great Recession unleashed a wave of fiscal stress in the USA, with austerity measures such as spending cuts, service reductions and privatisation predictably taking centre stage. Decades of federal withdrawal from urban policy and funding, combined with state retrenchment, have contributed to a landscape of urban fiscal stress exacerbated by the prolonged effects of the post-2007 recession. This article examines the experience of fiscal crisis in four US cities (Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, and San Jose), focusing on the narratives used by city and state government leadership to publicly describe local crises. Shared elements of the framing of urban fiscal crisis in this diverse set of cities provide insight into the unfolding of austerity in local politics. Blame for the crisis has centred less on social spending than in previous crises, and more on local governance failures, public pension commitments, and ongoing global economic precarity. Crisis governance has become widespread, even in fiscally resilient cities, driven by a vision of lean government in a ‘new normal’. While retrenchment effectively shrinks the state through spending cuts and privatisation, the governing power of cities is also being diminished by the narrative of fiscal responsibility reflected in the national move toward public pension restructuring and expanded state interventionism.

Citation: Hinkley, Sara. “Structurally adjusting: Narratives of fiscal crisis in four US cities.” Urban Studies, 54(9): 2123-2138. July 2017.