Progressives Have Let Inner Cities Fail for Decades. President Trump Could Change That.


When Donald Trump described the “devastating” conditions in America’s inner cities, emphasizing poor schools and lack of jobs, he was widely denounced for portraying our urban centers in a demeaning and inaccurate way, much as he had been denounced previously for his supposed appeal to “racial exclusion” when he asked black voters “what the hell do you have to lose” by backing him.

To be sure, Trump was tromped in big cities nationwide, losing by stupendous margins, but he actually did a little better than Mitt Romney among black and Hispanic voters, according to exit polls. Still, some urbanistas embraced the idea that even if Trump had won in the electoral college, “the city is ours,” as New York Magazine put it. And our America, those voices maintained, was doing great and would continue to do great even without a friend in the White House.

But as we saw in November, something isn’t so just because the coastal cocooners say it’s so. In reality, if we go beyond the big-city boosterism that dominates media coverage, poverty, crime, and economic stagnation still characterize many urban core neighborhoods even as many downtown districts have recovered. For all the talk about gentrification, concentrated urban poverty has been a persistent and growing problem, with 75 percent of high-poverty neighborhoods in 1970 still classified that way four decades later.

Racial and class inequality is very much alive even in the most “progressive” cities. In New York, the poster child for urban revitalization, poverty and homelessness have worsened, in large part due to soaring housing costs. Since 2007, median rents in the city have gone up 8.5 percent while median renters’ incomes have gone down by 6.8 percent. Particularly shocking have been rent rises at the edge of gentrification, in places like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg—where rents have risen 80 percent since the 1990s.

In most urban areas, particularly outside New York and a few other cities, the much ballyhooed “back to the city” movement — mindlessly overblown by the national media — impacts basically the downtown cores, which account for roughly 1.3 percent of the national population, a percentage they have held since 2000. Some inner-ring communities — often right next to the urban core — have lost population in those 16 years. Overall, the outer suburbs and exurbs, home to more than 40 percent of the metropolitan population, have added population at more than five times the rate of urban cores.

The same pattern applies to jobs. Though some cores have gained some employment, that’s been offset by big losses in the surrounding urban neighborhoods for an overall decline in the number of jobs in and around most city centers.

Bottom line: The suburbs and exurbs disdained by most urbanists and Democratic politicians continue to add residents and jobs as inner cities continue to languish.

In fact, roughly 80 percent of all job growth since 2010 has been in suburbs and exurbs. And tech, supposedly newly focused on the urban core, still concentrates largely in dispersed, suburban environments from Silicon Valley to Austin to Raleigh.

Rather than clustering downtown, most rapid growth is now in what may be seen as post-suburban cities, places like Irvine, California, Overland Park, Kansas, or Frisco, outside Dallas, where single family neighborhoods and cars co-exist with dense office parks and often expanding town centers. And with millennials now entering their thirties in greater numbers, these communities, generally safe and with good schools, seem to be growing in popularity much faster than the inner cities. These are unfortunate facts for Democrats, who have long celebrated, sometimes garishly, cities’ glaring problems—thus helping make Trump’s campaign comments sound that much more reasonable.

Trump’s pick of Ben Carson to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development has horrified some retro-urbanists who point to his lack of experience with housing issues, let alone running a $50-billion-a-year agency. Yet given the obvious failures of existing policies, an outsider may prove something of a blessing—if he comprehends the nature of the challenge.

During the past decade, urban boosters have hailed “the rise of creative class,” reflected by the migration of educated millennials to “hip and cool” cities including New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Portland. Yet as Richard Florida, who coined the term “creative class” has since observed, gentrification has not made life better for most urbanities, as the rise in housing costs has outpaced that in wages, making those cities even less affordable. The creative class certainly improved selected parts of urban America, but for the most part urban poverty, including homelessness and hunger, has barely been dented by gentrification and in some cases may have been made worse.

This poor result reflects the failure of urban policies that have been promoted by the very interests—particularly real-estate speculators and big-city politicians who count on them—that most strenuously oppose Trump and his pick of Carson in particular. Those policies include redevelopment that often serves to push inner-city residents from their homes—with HUD in the worst cases trying to lure poorer populations out of their cities altogether.

Those moves happened even as more upwardly mobile minorities headed in huge numbers to the periphery. Since 2000, notes demographer Wendell Cox, more than 95 percent of the minority population growth in the 52 largest metropolitan areas has been in suburban and exurban areas.

In Portland, minority neighborhoods close to downtown have been resettled, with encouragement from the progressive government, by upscale hipsters. Indeed, the largest reductions of African-American populations, and occasionally of Latinos as well, have taken place in precisely the bluest cities such as SeattleBoston, and San Francisco in what becomes a genteel exercise in whitewashing.

Even in more diverse cities such as Chicago, notes urban analyst Pete Saunders, city policies have been designed that force poorer, largely minority areas out of areas that, in essence, are considered too valuable for such populations. The results of dislocation, Saunders notes, has created a kind of progressive apartheid, where blacks and other minorities are driven away from neighborhoods that have been their home for generations. He describes Chicago poignantly as “one third San Francisco and two-thirds Detroit.”

Increasingly, at least in the centers of the greatest hipster infestation, minorities and working class families are being driven into less desirable areas, often further from work locations. This helps create new social tensions and, in many places, notably Chicago, more social unrest, and now the most murders in more than two decades. Overall, the rate of violent crime in urban cores remains almost four times higher than the national average, according to FBI data. The worst violence, and the sharpest upticks over the decade have been in cities with large black populations, including Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Memphis, Cleveland, and Atlanta.

Left out of the urban revival, minority and poor communities face diminishing opportunities while others prosper. This is true not only in places like Chicago, notes researcher Daniel Hertz, but also in New York where class and race inequality are much higher than in the rest of the country. Generally speaking, it’s the bluest and largest cities that suffer the worst levels of inequality.

Indeed despite the media spin, in the core cities of the 51 metropolitan areas, 81 percent of the population increase over the past decade was under the poverty line, compared to 32 percent of the suburban population increase. Despite talk about “suburban ghettos,” the poverty rate in the suburbs remains roughly half that of urban centers (20.9 percent in core compared to 11.4 percent in the suburbs as of 2010). Crime rates in core cities, meanwhile, remain over three times higher than in the suburbs.

No surprise that discrete and genteel “ethnic cleansing”—in the form of HUD “affirmative action” or taxpayer funded redevelopment—appeals to many urban boosters. In contrast, the much sought after hipster and wealthy childless adults thrill developers and mayors; they love a population that will pay a premium to live there and that doesn’t need good schools or working-class jobs.

If lack of commitment to pre-existing failure offers some hope to Trump and Carson, the non-existence of a programmatic agenda represents the significant downside. Trump, after all, hardly built his career in fighting poverty; his business of building luxury high-rises hardly made him a natural ally to the diminishing ranks of working- and middle-class urbanites.

Certainly, the new HUD should abandon its agenda of redirecting populations, or forcing high density on reluctant communities, whether in the poorer urban neighborhoods or the more comfortable suburbs. But there needs to more. One hopeful sign—particularly for cities in the heartland—would be attempts to keep industrial jobs in what’s left of the manufacturing economy, the loss of which has devastated cities such as Milwaukee. Similarly Trump’s stand against H-1B visas could help keep some white-collar positions in the hands of citizens residing in our cities, including on the coasts.

Other steps could be taken to reawaken the grassroots economy, particularly in hard-hit poorer neighborhoods. This might include such things deregulating some businesses, like in cosmetology, and making it easier for new restaurants and shops. Yet these things cannot be mandated from Washington; it will take some rise in the level of business savvy of our elected leaders in cities. Perhaps most critical will be addressing the escalating crime rate in many cities, where by far the vast majority of victims are minorities, as Trump himself pointed out.

Other parts of the potential Trumpian urban agenda, such as charter schools and vouchers, long supported by his Education Department nominee Betsy DeVos, could help address poor urban education, arguably the biggest reason why families don’t stay in cities like Chicago with their dysfunctional schools. Federal support for educational reform is vastly preferable to the kind of anti-charter agenda that, for example, Hillary Clinton, with her incestuous ties to the teacher unions, would have promoted.

Similarly, a shift away from “one size fits all” transportation policies might allow communities to build public transit options, ranging from bus rapid transit to innovative dial-a-ride services. Under the old regime, money tended to go into light rail and trolley projects designed to appeal to upscale riders and developers; a better focus on inner city needs might be actually helping working class people actually get to work as quickly and easily as possible, at reasonable cost rather than building dedicated lines that tend to push land prices up, and existing residents out.

Even if Carson can concoct such an agenda, this is unlikely to make Donald Trump popular among the retro-urbanist chattering class who have thrived under the current urban regime. But it is to be hoped that such a new approach, at very least, could finally make progressives, who control America’s big cities as virtual fiefs, reconsider policies that have led to tragic levels of impoverishment, violence, and inequality across our great urban centers.

This article first appeared on The Daily Beast.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of He is the Roger Hobbs Distinguished Fellow in Urban Studies at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His newest book, The Human City: Urbanism for the rest of us, was published in April by Agate. He is also author of The New Class ConflictThe City: A Global History, and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He lives in Orange County, CA.

Photo by Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons