In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump returned to his familiar urban script. American-style carnage mires mothers and children (fathers were left out of the equation) in poverty and in crime-, drug-, and gang-infested inner cities. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted at Chicago, his designated urban-carnage center, declaring he would send in “the Feds” unless Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also happens to have been President Obama’s first chief of staff, and other city officials figured out how to quell gun violence. It is a fact that Chicago has had the highest number of murders in the country over the past five years. However, there are more than a dozen cities, including Miami, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., that have higher per capita homicide rates.
Most municipal leaders understand that crime reduction hinges on addressing multiple underlying economic factors like poverty, which requires dollars and innovative strategies, not beatdowns. Chicago officials want more federal funding for education, economic development, and gun control, not the National Guard. Indeed, poverty is the top economic issue for both Democratic and Republican mayors in the United States, as we know from the Boston University Initiative on Cities, which tallied the responses from 102 mayors in cities of 75,000 or more in 41 states for its recent 2016 Menino Survey of Mayors.
The mayors’ top two policy priorities are quality-of-life issues, a category that includes crime and policing, and economic development. But Boston University researchers noted that their third priority, socioeconomic issues like poverty, was “more unexpected,” explaining that “while cities naturally face high demands to support lower income residents, redistributive policies traditionally fall to higher levels of government.”
With the national conversation about cities reverberating around the problem of income inequality, Boston University researchers investigated whether mayors’ key concerns mirrored the rhetoric about income inequality. Asked to choose among income inequality, poverty, the shrinking middle class, and none of the above, more 40 percent of the mayors said that poverty was their top economic concern, followed by the shrinking middle class.
Roughly one-quarter of mayors recognize that municipalities need to do a better job helping poor residents. According to Katherine Levine Einstein, a Boston University political science professor who worked on the survey, American mayors are very concerned about people at the bottom and less so by the wealthy few at the top. Einstein told The American Prospect that the fact that mayors spend quite a bit of time on the issue of poverty “stands out.” “They have specific programs—job training, universal pre-K, and raising the minimum wage—that they have thought about a great deal,” she says.
Concerns about poverty cross party lines: 47 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans listed poverty as their top economic concern. The heads of less well-to-do municipalities said that poverty was their key issue, while mayors of wealthy cities tended to have greater concerns about income inequality.
The survey also found that in 2016, concerns about policy areas related to poverty and income inequality jumped 10 percentage points from 2014. Why the increase? Einstein surmises that as mayors put the fiscal problems of the recession behind them, they have been able to turn their attention to specific policy priorities. Mayors identified afterschool programs and housing subsidies as ways to help poor residents improve their lives: 20 percent thought dealing with housing issues was the key solution; another 20 percent pointed to education; 14 percent identified job training; and 10 percent, better access to municipal services.
The most sobering finding was that mayors could not really point to any specific American city as a leader in fighting poverty. What is clear is that these urban mechanics have few tools and face big obstacles, such as limited funding and state preemption of local laws, in trying to alleviate poverty. Preemption has prevented liberal mayors in conservative states like Ohio and North Carolina from implementing poverty-eradication measures like a $15 minimum wage.
Mayors expressed trepidation about how Trump’s hostility toward federal government programs during the campaign might affect future funding (researchers conducted the survey last summer). The mayors designated the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which administers the critical Community Development Block Grants program, as the most “helpful” federal agency in their work, closely followed by the Department of Transportation.
Faced with a president committed to cutting key federal programs, and who has installed a neurosurgeon to oversee urban policy, many mayors expressed anxiety about what comes next, according to Einstein. “If we were to ask mayors now what they thought about Ben Carson being in charge of HUD, I think that they would be seriously concerned about his bureaucratic competence and his ability to administer the incredibly valuable programs that HUD offers,” she says. “Many viewed [HUD] as a lifeline to cities.”
Meanwhile, several days before the inauguration, Mike Pence, Trump’s stand-in at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, promised that the administration “is going to be a friend to America’s mayors.” “We may not agree on everything,” he said with no trace of irony, “but the success our country depends on the success of cities.”
But in urban affairs, the Pence-good-cop/Trump-bad-cop routine is wearing thin. The president has dodged multiple opportunities to offer new messaging about cities. If the president continues to view carnage as the problem and law enforcement as the solution, despite ample evidence to the contrary, he will soon face pushback from the vast majority of mayors who do not have Chicago-style problems. They would prefer constructive conversations about job creation and training, pre-kindergarten programs, and a legislated living wage, to platitudes about inner cities and moves against undocumented people who largely live in poverty.
It is disturbing that a native New Yorker clings to this vision of inner-city hellholes. But the president is a man who prefers to bulldoze facts and bamboozle people. His administration willfully ignores the different challenges that confront rural, urban, and suburban communities, while accelerating a divide-and-conquer strategy designed to appease the Republican base, gain new converts, and demoralize his urban-dwelling, Democratic-voting opponents. Poverty is another inconvenient fact that Trump won’t tackle, preferring instead to hammer home his right-wing propaganda about city life.