Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Let’s make telling the truth great again.
The three major topics up for debate tonight between Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University are prosperity, security, and the direction of America’s future. These are all pertinent topics for the future of cities, both within and outside of America, and we anticipate cities will come up a lot in at least one of the debater’s answers—that one person being Trump, because, well, he likes to beat up on cities (the feeling is often mutual).
Trump’s most reliable talking points revolve around what he believes is America’s ruined condition, and he’s usually quick to invoke a shortlist of economically struggling cities to illustrate his point. He often bully-pulpits from cities with large black and/or Latino populations, which he presents as avatars of America’s decline in stature as opposed to the symptoms of racist urban policies and Wall Street-driven financial disasters.
Since Trump seems to have de-prioritized truth on his campaign trail, CityLab has created this handy guide to the urban-focused topics likely to come up tonight. We anticipate that the four major buckets the debate’s moderator will draw from will trigger talk about crime and policing, immigration, infrastructure, and poverty. When they do, be sure to consult the guide below to separate fact from fiction in Trump’s responses.
Crime and Policing
Donald Trump often repeats that “inner-city” crime is out of control, and he’s calling for a national anti-crime agenda to rein it in. While it is true that violent crime has ticked up slightly in a few cities over the past couple of years—notably, in Chicago, Baltimore, and more recently in San Antonio—violent crime rates in major cities nationwide have dropped to historic lows over the last 30 years. Trump’s falsehoods about urban crime reaching peak-bleakness have been rejected not only by most credible criminologists, but also by the heads and chiefs of hundreds of law enforcement organizations in cities across the U.S.
You may have read that Trump earned glowing endorsements from major police unions across the U.S., including the national Fraternal Order of Police, and he’ll probably bring that up when NBC’s Lester Holt asks questions about security. But police unions are not the same as police departments, and union leaders are often people who no longer serve on police forces. So while Trump has been taking cues from union leaders on the policing strategies he thinks work best, those strategies do not reflect what currently working police leaders have been recommending.
The biggest example of this is his endorsement of stop-and-frisk, the police practice where street cops randomly pull pedestrians aside to question and search them, even if they’re not suspected of any crime in progress. Trump recently stated that this “worked incredibly well” in New York City, but this is not true. Not only did stop-and-frisk have little effect on stopping major crime, but it led to widespread racial profiling in New York, which led to a federal judge rendering it unconstitutional. Similar aggressive policing styles have led to racial discrimination in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson, where African Americans were stopped and searched way more frequently than white pedestrians even though police found contraband more often on white subjects.
Trump’s immigration agenda is full of contradictions and half-truths. But perhaps the most pernicious lie is that immigrants are criminals, not contributors.
Let’s unpack that. First, the link between immigration and crime is bogus—a series of studies over the years have shown that. Immigrants are less likely to commit small and big crimes than natives. Immigrant neighborhoods have lower crime in general. And the places with higher influxes of immigrant residents have seen larger drops in crime rates. The mounting tide of criminality ascribed to immigrants, over the years, ultimately has more to do with the resurgence of the “welfare queen” rhetoric and changes in U.S. laws than with immigrants themselves.
An extremely thorough new study by the National Academy of Sciences puts to rest the myth that immigrants are a drain on the economy. It shows that over the last ten-plus years, immigrants have had little to no effect on wages and employment of natives. Yes, educating the children of first-generation immigrants does cost the state money—more than they can make back in taxes from the initial batch of newcomers—but this is usually a sound long-term investment. Overall, immigration has a net positive effect on economic growth, the NAS study notes. It’s not nearly the bogeyman Trump makes it out to be.
For more on this read: The Rise of 'Crimmigration'
Donald Trump is correct that U.S. infrastructure is in a state of sorry deterioration, but his platform is shaky in the specifics of the nation's need. He has repeatedly misstated the share of bridges "in trouble" as 61 percent; it's more like 10 percent that are truly deficient. He has promised to rebuild roads for a third of the current cost, which is virtually impossible given the length of current approval processes. And of course, the centerpiece of his public-works vision is a "beautiful and massive" 2,000-mile wall along the U.S./Mexico border. Trump has waffled on the cost estimate, but even his highest number ($12 billion) is less than half of what engineers say is the ballpark.
In all, Trump has proposed at least $550 billion (about twice as much as Hillary Clinton) in infrastructure spending. "We'll get a fund, we'll make a phenomenal deal with the low interest rates and rebuild our infrastructure," Trump told Fox Business in early August. “The citizens would put money into the fund." He also explained he'd also use “infrastructure bonds from the country, from the United States.” This debt-financed scheme seems to contradict Trump's repeated commitments to slash the national debt and lower taxes at once. Nor would such astronomical spending align with GOP orthodoxy. And while Trump has promised his plan would be a huge employment generator, that could be a challenge: The construction industry already faces a severe labor shortage, which could very well worsen if Trump follows through on his extreme immigrant deportation plan.
For more on this read: 7 Infrastructure Myths Perpetuated by Donald Trump
Strictly speaking, no candidate is better qualified to talk about welfare than Trump. He has proven throughout the campaign how much he relies on it: from the $1.6 million one of his companies received from taxpayers to cover the costs of flying his U.S. Secret Service detail to the millions in contributions that the Trump Foundation has collected from donors and repackaged as charity in Trump’s own name. It’s tempting to trust Trump when he says that he can eliminate widespread fraud in federal assistance programs. After all, game recognize game.
The magical thinking that fogs many of Trump’s policy positions also looms over his stance on poverty and federal assistance. The economy will be so good under Trump, he has said, that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will pay for themselves. He’s also endorsed means-testing for Social Security, kind of—saying that wealthy citizens should not get these benefits but also that anyone who pays into the program is entitled to receive them. On other antipoverty programs, namely SNAP food assistance and disability insurance, Trump sees rampant waste and fraud, and has even suggested that poverty isn't a widespread problem that needs addressing..With regard to these programs, Trump supports renewed welfare-to-work requirements and precautions to prevent fraud. As the Urban Institute has shown, restrictions such as photo ID cards for SNAP don’t prevent dedicated retailers from committing fraud—they just make it harder for honest recipients to use. And welfare-to-work requirements are a mistake for aid such as housing assistance today.
Poverty declined between 2014 and 2015, according to the official Census poverty measure. Another indicator, the Supplemental Poverty Measure, which finds poverty to be much more extensive in the U.S., also showed a decline. According to the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute, these figures reveal “the tremendous impact that government programs have in reducing poverty.” Without programs like Social Security and housing assistance in place, poverty in America would be far, far worse.
For more on this read: Deadlock Over the Federal Budget Made the Affordable-Housing Crisis Worse