Two Hypotheses On Why Basket Case Cities Are Failing

From time to time I have used the term "basket case cities" to refer to those urban areas in the United States that are falling apart on literally any measure you might select.  The cities in question are characterized by such things as high crime rates (including startlingly high murder rates in most instances), falling population, high rates of poverty, high unemployment, and lack of business investment.  In every case the problems of high crime, high poverty, and high unemployment are particularly acute in the African American communities in these cities.  Among the larger U.S. cities that clearly qualify as "basket cases" by these measures are Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, and Baltimore.  Chicago and Philadelphia are somewhat different in having large prosperous areas, but both also contain significant swaths that would fall in the "basket case" category if considered separately.  And with the recent rioting, we have good reason to add Milwaukee to the "basket case" list.

Now, what is it about these cities that gets them into the "basket case" category and keeps them there for decade after decade?  In accordance with my "two ways of looking at the world" meme, I'll put out the two leading hypotheses:

(1) Hypothesis 1:  The plight of the "basket case" cities is the result of decades of progressive Democratic governance and policies.  All of the "basket case" cities have been governed by progressive Democrats since beyond human memory.  (According to a recent list published by National Review, the most recent Republican mayors of basket case cities included -- Chicago, 1927; Baltimore, 1963; St. Louis, 1943; Detroit, 1957; Philadelphia, 1947.  In Milwaukee it was 1908.)  The progressives have put in place massive government anti-poverty and welfare programs supposedly designed to alleviate the problems of crime, poverty and unemployment, but none of those programs have worked, and in fact they have only made the problems worse.

(2) Or alternatively, there is hypothesis 2:  All of the existing programs are just a charade, and there is some other government program that has been put forward by good progressive Democrats, but has somehow been blocked by evil Republicans and Conservatives.  And if only that one additional program had been implemented, it would have turned everything around.

For a particularly ridiculous example of someone arguing for hypothesis 2, I give you Derrick Jackson, writing in the Boston Globe of August 17.  Jackson writes about his home town of Milwaukee in the aftermath of the recent riots.  He notes Milwaukee's population decline from 741,000 in 1960 to 597,000 in 2000; and its loss of manufacturing jobs, from 120,000 in 1960 to 27,000 in 2009.  And to what does Mr. Jackson attribute the problems of Milwaukee's African American community?

I [have taken] particular note as the city’s white suburbs built an invisible but impregnable cage around a majority African-American and Latino city.  The bars of that cage: the lack of public transportation.

Aha!  So it was not the century plus of progressive governance in the city itself that drove Milwaukee into the ground, but instead the evil Republicans in the suburban counties surrounding it:

Efforts in the 1990s to connect Milwaukee to the new economy in the suburbs by light rail were derailed by [suburban county] politicians and business opponents, often using racially coded language. One warned that rail would have a “dramatic effect on our neighborhoods and area residents.” Another spoke ominously of “strangers who are not only a threat to your property but to your children.” Conservative talk radio kept up a drumbeat of opposition. Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson said he wouldn’t spend a nickel of state money on light rail. In the face of all that, there was no chance that public transit could be viewed as an economic bridge-builder. To the contrary, the bridge was burned before it could be built.

Does anybody actually believe that this is the cause of Milwaukee's woes?  Funny thing is, among the basket case cities, Cleveland, St. Louis and Baltimore all built light rail systems in recent decades, not to mention that Chicago and Philadelphia have all along had extensive mass transit infrastructure.  So, Derrick, why aren't those places any better off than Milwaukee?

It doesn't take much looking to figure out that a couple of streetcar lines going out to the suburbs, for very large cost, would have at most an extremely marginal effect on Milwaukee's situation.  For example, the St. Louis system averaged about 47,000 daily riders in 2015.  As rules of thumb, about two-thirds of those riders are likely to be commuting to jobs, but there will be about a 4:1 ratio between people commuting from outlying areas to jobs downtown against those commuting from the inner city to jobs in the outlying areas.  And each commuter to a job is counted twice in the daily ridership figures.  That would put a number of about 3000 people per day commuting from the city to suburban jobs.  That's less than 1% of the population of the City of St. Louis, and less than 0.3% of the population of St. Louis County (which is the service area of the rail system.)  Baltimore has somewhat higher ridership, at about 66,000 per day when you combine its light and heavy rail components.  That would mean perhaps as many as 4500 people per day commuting to jobs in the suburban areas.  But Baltimore is almost twice as big a city as St. Louis, so it's again well less than 1% of the population.

Really, Derrick, if you're going to come up with the mythical program that could have turned everything around, you'll have to do better than this.  Meanwhile, could you kindly address why the hundreds of billions of dollars of annual government programs currently in place have not improved the situation of the basket case cities, nor reduced poverty in the slightest in 50 years?