A POLITICAL BACKLASH against cities is brewing, and it might have been expected, given the last several years of urban triumphalism. With some notable exceptions, cities are on a streak: safe, rich, green, diverse — hives of innovation solving the nation’s problems while Washington burns.
Cities are healthier and wealthier than the country’s most rural areas, with lower levels of heart disease, obesity, and child poverty. Education levels are higher. Rural counties are losing population while many cities are enjoying a resurgence, especially among young people. Islands of urban prosperity are just as evident in Southern and mid-American red states as on the liberal coasts.
Boston is an exemplar of the trend. The bet placed on an educated workforce, welcoming to immigrants and entrepreneurs, has paid dividends in high tech, higher education, and health care: The city’s unemployment rate was 2.7 percent in December, a full 2 points below the national average. Plus, splendid cultural institutions, a gleaming river and harbor, and a half-dozen new restaurants seeming to open every week. No wonder we’re feeling a tad superior.
But the days of urban hegemony may be numbered. President Trump owes his victory to rural America: He did better among rural voters than the last two Republican presidential candidates. Even in Massachusetts, Trump’s biggest wins were in a clutch of small hamlets on the Connecticut border: Russell, Blanford, Granville, Tolland. In his campaign, Trump tarred cities as dystopian nightmares of crime and despair, and cities returned the compliment: He lost eight of the 10 largest metro areas in the United States, and 92 percent of the urban core.
Now Trump is keeping a list of so-called sanctuary cities that oppose his immigrant deportation orders, threatening to slash billions in their federal aid. His visa restrictions imperil the industries many cities rely on. Proposed funding cuts and technical changes in the US Census are likely to undercount urban populations. Many conservative states are barring their more liberal cities from passing local ordinances — increasing the minimum wage, for example, or adopting gun regulations.
A provocative column by Ross Douthat of The New York Times is stoking rural resentments further. In what he conceded was an “implausible, perhaps even ridiculous” notion, Douthat proposed breaking up the country’s urban enclaves and sprinkling their benefits across rural America: Tax Harvard’s endowment, condition the nonprofit status of large philanthropies on the number of people they employ in lower-income states, eliminate local and property tax deductions that favor residents of high-cost cities.
These ideas and others like them have a certain currency among conservative thinkers, and they may be gratifying to those in small communities who feel their world is under siege while cities drain their best talent and disdain them as flyover rubes.
But the proposals are flawed for two reasons. First, urban tax dollars are already subsidizing rural counties. A disproportionate amount of federal dollars flow to mostly rural states, while richer states with large urban centers pay more in taxes than they receive in federal benefits. According to the Tax Foundation, the five states most dependent on federal tax dollars are Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Montana, and Kentucky. So poor rural areas will continue to profit from those smug cities — at least so long as Trump’s planned budget cuts to rural assistance programs are kept at bay.
Second, the urban-rural economic divide is just a stark example of the overall concentration of wealth that Republican policies have abetted for years. Small farmers in the corn belt are hurting, but agribusiness is doing just fine. If Douthat and friends want to redistribute the wealth, why not call for a guaranteed minimum wage, or free college and vocational tuition — or adjust tax rates so the rich pay their fair share, wherever they might live?
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.