The seven largest metropolitan areas of the U.S. account for 25 percent of GDP; the 30 largest metros account for 50 percent of GDP. U.S. cities, despite only taking up 3.5 percent of the nation’s land area, are home to 62.7 percent of the population.
But none of that is enough to make crumbling urban infrastructure, frothing urban real estate markets pricing out many low-income and even middle-income families, commercial real estate investors forcing out small and local businesses, or plummeting small business loans into topics of discussion at any of the three presidential debates, including last night’s finale between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump.
The most explicit mention of cities came at the very, very end, during impromptu closing statements prompted by moderator and Fox News anchor Christopher Wallace.
“Our inner cities are a disaster,” said Trump. “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education. They have no jobs. I will do more for African-Americans and Latinos than she can ever do in 10 lifetimes.”
Clinton could have rebuked a similar statement from Trump in the second debate, but did not take the opportunity to do so. Last night, Wallace had Clinton give her closing statement first, so she did not get that chance again.
We’ll never know if Clinton would have brought up the fact that nationally, crime and murder rates are at historic lows, so low that even “a relatively small increase in the [murder] numbers can result in a large percentage increase,” according to the Brennan Center for Justice. For crime overall, the crime rate nationally is now half of what it was in 1990, and 22 percent less than it was at the turn of the century.
When it comes to jobs, “I want us to do more to help small business. That’s where two-thirds of the new jobs are going to come from,” Clinton said last night. It’s true: Small businesses account for the majority of jobs in most cities, even more so in areas with higher than average poverty or unemployment rates. But she didn’t add any specifics about skyrocketing rents or access to capital for small businesses, despite an agenda full of proposals that could at least help with access to capital.
Trump, meanwhile, couldn’t be further from the views of small businesses, says the Main Street Alliance, a national network of small business coalitions.
“Trump’s recently released tax plan would only worsen the unfair U.S. tax system by disproportionately benefiting the highest-income earners and putting a strain on the rest of us. We need to move away from a system that has been manipulated by greed and self-indulgence to create a tax code that levels the playing field,” said Matt Birong, part of the Main Street Alliance network and the owner of 3 Squares Café in Vergennes, Vermont.
Trump referenced several audience members he invited in as guests because they allegedly had children murdered by undocumented immigrants. “We have some bad hombres here, and we’re going to get them out,” said Trump. Never mind the fact that newcomers to the U.S. are less likely than those born here to commit violent crimes or be incarcerated.
Clinton, in her response, emphasized keeping families together, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. — who happen to have 4 million American-born children. “Bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows … into the formal economy will be good, because then employers can’t exploit them and undercut Americans’ wages,” Clinton said last night.
In cities, the true impact of immigrants is obvious: more vibrant, entrepreneurial economies. Immigrants are more than twice as likely as native-born citizens to start new businesses, and 28 percent of all U.S. companies started in 2011 had immigrant founders, according to the Partnership for a New American Economy.
“As an immigrant and the owner of an architecture firm, the walls I build are on homes, designed to keep families safe. We don’t build walls designed to keep good people out. It’s not how our country or our economy works. Trump’s idea of an immigration policy would be a disaster for our country,” Francisco Garcia, another Main Street Alliance network member and the owner of The Building Workshop in San Diego, said in a press release.
Trade was another key issue for cities that came up last night. The country’s 100 largest cities generate the bulk of the nation’s exports (86 percent), attract the vast majority of jobs from foreign direct investment (74 percent), and draw most of the foreign students investing in an American education (85 percent), according to Brookings Institution.
But rather than a practical discussion of how trade does affect city economies and what policy can do to push things in a more equitable direction, candidates reiterated talking points about renegotiating NAFTA or prosecuting illegal dumping of steel and other products from East Asian countries. They said very little about strengthening the nation’s workforce development system or increasing access to capital as part of keeping cities on the forefront of global markets. At other points of the conversation, Clinton did reference strengthening education systems and apprenticeships, but did not tie them back to trade and the key role of cities.
As it stands, the nation’s electoral system just isn’t designed to cater to the majority of its population or its key economic engines. Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs), a key resource for many urban communities, peaked in 1995 at $4.4 billion, shrinking nearly every year. Since 2000, HUD funding has met needs in only three out of the last 17 years including this year.
Cities used to matter. From 1965 to 1995, federal rental assistance went from covering less than a million units to nearly 5 million units. Since 1995, that figure has barely grown, even though renters in the U.S. have grown by nearly 9 million over the past 10 years.
Will 2020 be any different?
Oscar is Next City's senior economics correspondent. He previously served as Next City’s editor from 2018-2019, and was a Next City Equitable Cities Fellow from 2015-2016. Since 2011, Oscar has covered community development finance, community banking, impact investing, economic development, housing and more for media outlets such as Shelterforce, B Magazine, Impact Alpha, and Fast Company.