As stimulus funds make their way from Washington to state legislatures and beyond, the process and conflicts that arise en route point again to a perpetual identity crisis: Is America a nation of cities or a nation of suburbs? The answer to that question is shaping how stimulus money is doled out, The Wall Street Journal reports.

States are responsible for distributing $280 billion of the $787 billion total stimulus funds. Because of a mix of statehouse decisions and confusion about federal law, mayors around the country say that governors are shortchanging more populous areas. Scenes like this one from Indiana are replaying across all states:

Residents in Greenwood, Ind., planned to widen a road leading to I-69 in hopes of attracting businesses, Mayor Charles Henderson said. Instead, a regional authority gave the city $1.2 million in federal stimulus funds to build a pedestrian trail bridge over a road. “It does not stimulate long-term economic development, but we’re going to take that money,” he said.

Of the $657 million that flowed into Indiana for transport projects, the regional agency that includes Greenwood got $39.5 million and dispensed it based largely on project readiness.


“Not a lot of places had projects that were shovel ready,” including the Greenwood project, noted Lori Miser, executive director of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization. “We did the best we could in dividing up money amongst our 40 communities.”

This WSJ story has a good counterpart in an Associated Press review, which determined that “counties suffering the most from job losses stand to receive the least help from President Barack Obama’s plan to spend billions of stimulus dollars on roads and bridges.”

According to the AP, areas that have the highest unemployment will receive less transportation money than those will lower jobless rates. On the surface, this sounds counterintuitive, and the AP doesn’t do a great job in making the numbers seem less murky.

In low-unemployment counties nationwide, those in the bottom quarter of jobless rates, the federal government is spending about $89 a person compared with $59 a person in the worst-hit areas.

In counties with the largest populations, the government is spending about $69 a person in areas with the lowest unemployment and $40 a person in places with the greatest job need.

The AP practically lets these assertions stand, without explaining to readers exactly why a relationship between transportation dollars and unemployment is valid and important. On the surface, one can’t expect that road work can provide employment for all of a region’s jobless; luckily, we get this quote from a Tennessee mayor that reveals the iceberg lurking under the data:

Yet residents of Perry County, Tenn., will have to wait. County Mayor John Carroll said he’s disappointed his community, which suffers from 25.4 percent unemployment, won’t receive a dime any time soon for its road needs.

“It’s pretty easy to draw a connection between the high unemployment rate and the lack of any four-lane highways,” he said.

It might be easy for Mayor Carroll to see why better roads would serve his small municipality, which is located in a county with the lowest population density in the state, but the debate gets murkier when you hit the zoom-out button and consider the country as a whole.

Given that, according to the WSJ, cities are losing the fight for federal funds, it’s possible that Mayor Carroll and others may get their way for more funds to expand access to rural areas. But before that happens, it would be interesting to see a public debate about exactly what kind of country the stimulus is supposed to help build. Given the big talk about cutting emissions and bolstering public transit, there are hints that President Obama’s vision for the future places a new emphasis on urbanism. But for now, it’s unclear how stimulus spending will figure into that vision.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.