Donald Trump is making a concerted effort to reach out to African American voters. His outreach has been widely criticized as making universalist claims of black poverty and despair. Case in point from a speech last Thursday:
I say to the African-American parent: You have a right to walk down the street of your city without having your child or yourself shot, and that’s what’s happening right now. That’s what’s happening.
It doesn’t do much good to speculate on Trump’s motives. Too much of that happens under the guise of legitimate political analysis. Instead, we should examine him on the evidence. We know is that violent crime is rising after a two decade decline. Whether this is an anomaly or the start of a trend is hard to know. What we can say, however, is that the largest increases in violent crime are in small town/rural areas. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report on crime for the first part of 2015 noted that:
Murders were up 17 percent in areas with fewer than 10,000 residents, while murders were up 12.4 percent in places with between half a million and a million residents and up 10.8 percent in places with more than 1 million residents.
So while crime is increasing, it’s not doing so in “inner cities” at a particularly alarming rate as compared to other areas. We can say similar things about drug addiction. A 2015 study on heroin addiction by my colleague, Jane Carlisle Maxwell at UT-Austin, found that drug addiction rates do not follow recent historical patterns. Her findings indicate that whites aged 18-44 had the highest rates of heroin addiction.
Trump’s has repeatedly referred to the inner cities as bastions of poverty and despair. While central city poverty has gone up over the past few years, it has been far exceeded by the increase in poverty in suburban areas, such that there are more suburban poor people than urban poor. A 2011 Brookings Institution found that while central city poverty had increased 29 percent since 2000, suburban poverty had gone up 64 percent during that same time period. And the 2015 American Community Survey found that the rate of rural poverty 18.1 percent exceeded the rate of urban poverty 15.1 percent.
None of this is to say that central cities do not face significant challenges (they have for decades). But the data contextualizes Trump’s claims and challenges the notions of inner cities as being singularly filled with poverty and despair. Why frame the debate this way? Trump’s appeal fits into a time honored narrative of cities being dens of immorality and depravity. In a 1787 letter to James Madison, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
When we get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, we shall become corrupt as in Europe. – Letter to James Madison (20 December 1787)
Jefferson’s preference was for a nation of yeoman farmers. This romantic notion of small towns as bastions of wholesome, moral rectitude is being strained by the reality of increasing drug addition and economic stagnation. Highlighting to supporters the challenges facing in small-town rural communities undercuts Trump’s main campaign theme of “Making America Great Again.” Appeals that reinforce the idea of central cities as broken appeals to the vanity of rural and suburban residents who can feel legitimated in their lifestyle. This is particularly true for rural voters convinced that liberals think they are dumb or immoral because of their views towards different groups. Ideally, the press would be challenging appeals on both sides with factual evidence rather than as spectators who are merely covering a horse race (the basis for another blog post).