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Presidential campaigns have a way of focusing on what is wrong and who is to blame. Now, at the end of the latest campaign, would be a good time to give some thought to an area where, in fact, considerable progress is being made: America's cities.

For decades, talk about cities has been dominated by the perception of urban decay and skepticism about urban policy. But the current reality paints a far more interesting and hopeful picture of metropolitan opportunity.

In the past decade, the populations of the nation's 50 largest cities have grown by nearly 10 percent. This was accompanied by a rise in city incomes that was almost double the national average and by an increase in housing units, homeownership and mortgage lending. In the same period, poverty declined 24 percent and urban crime decreased.

Cities are crucial to the U.S. economy. In 2002, metro economies were responsible for 85.6 percent of gross domestic product, almost $9.1 trillion in goods and services. Inner cities, usually dismissed as lacking economic vitality, are home to 21 million people with purchasing power estimated at $331 billion.

The business community is beginning to realize their potential, and investment has returned to many urban markets, bringing goods, services and job opportunities. What accounts for this progress?

Several national trends -- such as immigration, population growth and the shift to a services-based economy -- are contributing to the urban renaissance. But another important factor is smart public policy. Over the past 20 years, bipartisan effort has put in place a number of federal programs that work to stimulate private investment and energize people to take charge of their own destiny. Their combined effect has helped put millions into affordable homes.

But two of the most important, one called HOPE VI and another known as Section 8 housing choice vouchers, were put in danger by reforms proposed in this year's budget. These programs have offered important ways to transform aging public housing ghettos into dynamic mixed-income communities.

HOPE VI provides funds for building improvements and support services such as child care and job training. Since 1992, it has awarded almost $5 billion to 146 public housing authorities in 36 states and Washington. Housing choice vouchers, which assist 2 million families annually, are crucial in the large-scale rejuvenation of these neighborhoods by making housing in improving areas affordable for low-income families.

These programs aren't widely known outside the world of urban housing specialists; they require a patient understanding of technical detail and so are vulnerable to budget cutting. But they have encouraged a wave of urban renewal nationwide over the past decade.

Cities merit an important place in our national discussion. With continued effort, they can be an essential source of inspiration for the decency and dynamism that will strengthen our country.

Jonathan Fanton, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, wrote this for the Washington Post.

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