Has Any Democrat-Controlled City Come Up With A Good Solution For African-American Poverty?

Last week — after President Trump via Twitter had accused Representative Elijah Cummings of Baltimore of “incompetent leadership” and making a “mess” of his very-high-crime, high-poverty district, and after numerous media critics had responded by hurling the charge of “racism” at Trump — I weighed in with a post titled “It’s About Time That Someone Pushed Back About The Disaster Of Democrat-Controlled Cities.” The post made what I think is the obvious point that when a group of people have for decades promoted certain government spending programs as the appropriate solution to low incomes and poverty in African American communities, and when after decades of time and trillions of dollars of spending the problems of low income and poverty persist and indeed worsen, it is entirely appropriate to hold the promoters of these spending programs accountable for their failure.

On July 30, the often-creative Kevin Williamson of National Review offered his own even more contrarian view on the subject, in a piece titled “Which Party Can We Blame For Poverty And Crime?” (More contrarian than the Manhattan Contrarian? How is that even possible?) Williamson points out that Census data from around the U.S. give no clear correlation between poverty and crime on the one hand, and Republican versus Democratic governance on the other. He notes that the very poorest county in the whole country is Owsley County, Kentucky — a place with almost entire white demographics (98+%) and very strongly Republican politics. Meanwhile, there are numerous examples of Democrat-run cities that Williamson says are “very good places to live,” with relatively low-ish rates of crime and poverty. He cites Austin and Denver as prime examples.

Fair enough. But with all due respect, I think that Williamson is asking the wrong question here. The important question is, what (if anything) can be done by a governmental entity to facilitate bringing African Americans to higher levels of income and wealth, and to reduced levels of crime commission and victimization? Unfortunately, the examples cited by Williamson, including Owsley County, Austin and Denver, teach almost nothing to answer this question. The examples (not discussed by Williamson) of heavily black and Democrat-controlled cities like Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, and many others have enormous amounts to teach on this important question. And what those places have to teach is that the suites of massive in-kind handout programs — promoted by Democrat politicians for my entire lifetime, and still promoted today by Democrats all the way from local jurisdictions up to presidential candidates — don’t work. Indeed, for these programs it’s far worse than that they merely don’t work. They promote dependency, idleness and resentment, and trap the supposed beneficiaries in unproductive lives from which it is extremely difficult to escape.

Williamson apparently came upon Owsley County by looking for whatever county in the country happens to be the “poorest” as measured by Census statistics, and coming up with one that proved to be almost unanimously white and heavily Republican. On the other hand, it would be difficult to extrapolate from Owsley County to reach any broad conclusions about anything. It has almost no population — 4,472 people in 198 square miles, according to a Census estimate for 2018. It is in Eastern Kentucky coal country, and it seems that most of the mines have closed. The population has declined almost 40% from a peak in the 1950s, undoubtedly as the coal business has gone away and many young people have moved elsewhere to find opportunity. The relatively affluent city of Lexington is only about 40 miles away. Census gives the median household income as $22,736 and the poverty rate as 36.8%. Those represent very bad economic results if you believe that Census provides real measures of the human condition, but keep in mind a couple of points: (1) it is entirely appropriate in my view to expect people from an isolated rural area like this to move elsewhere to find opportunity, rather than attempting the impossible of getting some new investor to come in here with some new project every time a coal mine closes, and (2) the income and poverty numbers may well be largely an artifact of how Census measures “income” by excluding many sorts of available resources, particularly since many residents here (including those from former coal-mining families) may be receiving things like in-kind benefits or EITC that don’t count. (My favorite example of the meaninglessness of Census poverty statistics is affluent Ithaca, New York, where Census reports a “poverty” rate of 43.4%, well higher even than Owsley County. This high “poverty” rate consists largely of students who live well in dorms and dining halls off family support and/or scholarships and fellowships, neither of which count as “income” in the view of Census. I’m not saying that Owsley County has a big prestigious university like Cornell to warp its numbers like Ithaca does, but this example illustrates how the very arbitrary Census definitions and exclusions from “income” can lead to highly misleading numbers that have nothing to do with economic reality, particularly in areas with relatively small populations.)

Now consider Austin and Denver. They may well be very good places to live, but do they have anything to show the rest of the country about how to improve economic results for African Americans? Both have percentages of blacks in the population well below the U.S. average — 7.6% in Austin and 9.5% in Denver, versus 13.4% for the U.S. as a whole. And yet both have “poverty” rates that are above the U.S. average, if not dramatically so — 15.4% for Austin and 15.1% for Denver, versus 12.3% for the U.S. as a whole. If these progressive icons had something to teach the rest of us about how to cure poverty, don’t you think that they could achieve a level of poverty no higher than the country-wide average, given a substantially smaller percentage of blacks in the population than the norm?

Looking around among the Democrat-run cities (and there really aren’t any major Republican-run cities), you can find examples where crime in the African American community has been dramatically reduced over the past few decades, but you are hard-pressed to find any comparable reductions in rates of poverty and dependency. The kingpin in crime reduction is of course New York, where the murder rate fell from about 25/100,000 in the early 1990s to only about 4/100,000 today, with the percentage of blacks in the population at about 24.3%. Those statistics are dramatic proof that a city with a large black population can achieve crime commission and victimization rates among African Americans that are close to the norm for all races nationwide, principally through highly professional and focused policing. Of course, almost all (but not quite all) of the crime reduction occurred in the period of 1994 to 2013 when we had Republican mayors. Meanwhile, the poverty rate in New York City remains an embarrassing 19.6%, well above the 12.3% national norm. (These numbers for “poverty” level may well be misleading, but at least should provide apples-to-apples comparisons with regard to other areas of sufficiently large population.) Clearly the vast suite of social and redistributive programs for which New York is famous has not only not eliminated poverty, particularly among African Americans, but has left it worse than the national all-race norm, at least as measured by these statistics.

New York’s success at crime reduction stands as a dramatic rebuke to other Democrat-controlled cities where murder rates stand at a multiple of our current rate, representing an annual slaughter, mostly of hundreds of young African American males. Baltimore has a murder rate of about 50/100,000, more than 12 times that of New York. In St. Louis the murder rate is even higher at about 60/100,000; in Detroit and New Orleans it’s about 40/100,000 , and in Chicago about 30/100,000.

I can’t find a single example of a long-time Democrat-run city with a significant African American population (above the national norm) that has achieved a poverty rate of even close to the national norm of 12.3%. Examples: Chicago, blacks 30.5%, poverty rate 20.6%; Los Angeles, blacks 8.9%, poverty rate 20.4%; Atlanta, blacks 52.3%, poverty rate 22.4%; Houston, blacks 22.9%, poverty rate 21.2%. Can anybody come up with an example? I don’t think it exists.