Correlation vs. Causation: Urban history edition

Decaying former mansion, Detroit, 1999 (Library of Congress
Decaying former mansion, Detroit, 1999 (Library of Congress

In recent days, Republican nominee Donald Trump has been making an effort to reach out to African-American voters, particularly those in major urban areas.  The effort has been ham-fisted, at best and involved resurrecting an old argument about Democratic party policies and urban areas: namely, that because the Democratic party maintains a strong presence in older, economically-declining cities, it is in fact this political dominance that is responsible for decline.  Democratic rule, the argument goes, causes urban economic decline, poverty, and high rates of crime.  In his August 19 speech, Trump stated,

“Look at how much African American communities are suffering from Democratic control. To those I say the following: What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose?…You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose?”

As I said, while Trump’s presentation may be especially hyperbolic (and inaccurate) this argument has been around for some time; Glenn Beck peddled a version of it back in 2008, and it is resurrected fairly often in conservative commentary like Fox News. The point has undeniable appeal – it points to a clear, factual correlation, and can offer a clear, simple explanation to what is a frustratingly complex problem.

Like most “simple” answers to complex issues, however, there’s only one problem: it doesn’t hold water. Yes, in struggling cities like Detroit, St. Louis, Cleveland, it’s true that Democratic politicians tend to hold sway. However, let’s take a look at the top 10 fastest-growing cities of the last decade If it were true that Democratic leadership destined cities to poverty, then surely these cities have benefited from conservative GOP dominance? The table below (based on 30 minutes of internet research by yours truly) tells a different story:

Dems and cities1

Obviously, using only the mayoral administration is a crude measure of political “control” in American cities (a more thorough analysis would want to consider the makeup of city councils/aldermen, etc.) – but this, I believe, makes the point sufficiently.  Correlation is not causation, and Democratic political power doesn’t “cause” urban decline any more than Nicolas Cage movies cause people to drown in swimming pools.

None of this is to hold Democrats blameless for urban malaise, or to say that conservative policies can’t contribute to a solution for inner cities.  But it is to say that political candidates and pundits ought to take a more thoughtful approach to these serious issues, perhaps by studying a little urban history to understand the myriad forces that contribute to urban economic decline and racial division.  If they’re serious about improving urban poverty, scholarship like Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto and the host of new works on racial segregation and poverty in urban America (most popularly, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Case for Reparations”) would go a long way toward deepening their understanding.

I suspect, however, that talking heads and attention-seeking candidates will not be visiting the history section of their local library any time soon, and that the culture of sloppy thinking, easy answers and finger-pointing will dominate our rhetoric of urban poverty for some time to come.