A Baltimore police officer guards a crime scene in West Baltimore, Md., in 2015. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)
Don’t hold your breath for solutions in the cities or rural America.
Baltimore is . . . not great. It has the second-highest murder rate (“non-negligent homicide,” in the nomenclature of the FBI) in the country, behind St. Louis. It has some of the worst-performing public schools in the nation. The city’s mayor recently resigned in disgrace after a financial scandal. It is 63 percent African American. It is an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Owsley County, Ky., is . . . not great. It is the poorest county in the United States. It has the second-highest level of child poverty in the country. Almost a quarter of the population under the age of 65 is classified as having a disability. It is 98 percent white. It is an overwhelmingly Republican county.
What does Baltimore tell us about Democratic governance? President Trump thinks he knows. (Kind of weird to hear a New Yorker complaining about the rats in some other city, though.) But we might also ask: What does Owsley County tell us about Republican governance?
This is not an entirely unfair question in either case, but you have to be particular about it.
Milwaukee, where the Democrats are having their 2020 convention, is a mess — and it is the Democrats’ mess, no question about it. But Austin and Denver are very good places to live, and also are overwhelmingly Democratic cities. You could try to compare the state of big cities that are overwhelmingly Democratic to those that are overwhelmingly Republican, except for the problem that there is no big city in the United States that is overwhelmingly Republican. (Republicans do not seem to be able to think of one they like very much, which does not bode well for the party’s electoral future.) There are cities in which Republicans win some offices and have some influence, including some very good places to live such as San Diego and Boise, Idaho (which is much less Republican than the rest of Idaho) and some fine Republican-friendly cities with critical challenges, such as Miami. What we should conclude from these generalities is not obvious.
On the specific issue of crime, relatively liberal cities and relatively conservative ones often clump together in the statistics. Henderson, Nev., has about the same murder rate as Irving, Texas, and Virginia Beach, Va. Politically dissimilar cities such as Boise, Idaho, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Irvine, Calif., have even lower rates. High-crime Baltimore is Democratic, but so is low-crime Austin.
Crime correlates with variables such as race and economic status. But this also happens in ways that can be counterintuitive. Relative to their share of the population, African Americans commit more violent crimes and suffer more violent crimes. And poor areas in general tend to have more violent crime. Baltimore is two-thirds black, while Austin is less than 8 percent black. Austin has a median household income of nearly $64,000 a year and a poverty rate of about 15 percent; Baltimore has a median household income that is nearly 30 percent less than Austin’s and a poverty rate that is half again as much. Owsley County’s median household income is half of Baltimore’s, and its poverty rate is 70 percent higher, but it has a violent crime rate that not only is radically lower than Baltimore’s but much lower than the national average. What’s that all about? Population density? Maybe. The fact that African-American poverty in poor cities has characteristics that are different from white poverty in poor rural areas? Probably. The wisdom of Representative Elijah Cummings? Well . . .
Some problems can be much more directly linked to the character of government and to public policy. The state of the schools in big American cities, for example, is very closely linked to the character of American public-sector unions and to their stranglehold on the Democratic party, which stifles competition and innovation and prevents the enactment of measures to ensure basic accountability. Moneyed suburban districts in which there is real school choice — because families can afford to choose — tend to have much better public schools, even where they have a larger share of students in private schools. But, again, there is no straightforward policy narrative: Owsley County’s high-school graduation rate is 28 points higher than the Milwaukee public school district’s.
The shortage of housing in Democrat-dominated places such as the Bay Area also is very closely linked to progressive policies, in this case the ones that keep developers from expanding the housing supply. But these failures are compounded by the success of these communities: People really like living in Palo Alto and Manhattan. There is no affordable-housing crisis in Owsley County, Ky.
There are symmetries: Poor cities and poor rural areas often are dominated by a familiar kind of insider-outsider politics: “They don’t care about people like us,” goes the refrain, “and so you should support your own people, who share your interests.” Hustling politicians promise visionary new economic-development schemes every other year, but not much changes. Is that political malpractice? Partly. But it also is the case that large-scale economic development is not something that politicians can magic out of a hat. Much of rural America and exurban Rust Belt America are in the condition they are in because they were built on economic foundations that are no longer operative. A lot of big Democratic cities are like that, too: If Philadelphia didn’t already exist, you wouldn’t invent it. St. Louis was built on the steamboat trade — not much of a going concern just now.
Increasingly southern and rural Republicans are good at sneering at Baltimore. The tony Democrats in San Francisco are damned well-practiced at sneering at the rural south. As for doing something about the problems in those communities — moderate your expectations. Donald Trump is a famous son of New York City who has offered himself as tribune for the struggling communities of the heartland, and Nancy Pelosi is a celebrated daughter of Baltimore, where her father once was mayor. And if the two of them decided to really take on the most fundamental problems of any of those communities and put their heads together, it would sound like a minor mishap in a coconut-processing plant.
And the poor — in the cities or in Appalachia? What about them? Oh, dear: There are funds to raise and tweets to tweet and elections to be won and cheap allegations of racism to be bandied about. Maybe we’ll get to them next time around.