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The Super Affluent City That's Surrounded By Poverty

In Chapter 4 of Trump City, Trump's tax plan offers more autonomy to big cities, but at a big cost to the poor.

The Super Affluent City That's Surrounded By Poverty

[Photo: marchello74/iStock]

This article is part of our seven-part series on the future of cities under President-elect Trump, for which we asked experts in urban planning, city surveillance, and social reform to describe the city they imagine under the policies of the new administration.

Trump wooed the rural and small city vote, yet, ironically, experts agree that his policies are more likely to benefit big cities, transforming them into enclaves for the wealthy with unparalleled public services.

Say Trump really does lower everyone’s taxes. Social Security sticks around, but benefits like Medicare and Medicaid are cut for the poor. Cities—at least those protesting Trump policies—cease to get federal funds. But the upper-middle and upper classes continue to have decent incomes.

"In that scenario, progressive cities could self-tax to make up the money," says Gabriel Metcalf, president of the urban policy think tank SPUR. "Because we’d all be getting a federal tax cut, we’d have the option to make up the difference locally . . . and in that scenario, maybe the progressive cities would do just fine."

Cities would be wonderful places to live—for those that can afford to live in them. More parks. Perfect sidewalks. Maybe even large-scale infrastructure plans, the likes of which are rarely seen in cities these days, like green power facilities that bring wind and solar to every citizen who lives there just for paying local taxes.

In Trump's America, cities might not even have to rely upon Trump's own promised $1 trillion in private investment for infrastructure improvements. Since cities receive relatively little from the federal government already, and Trump would be cutting federal taxes, many experts I spoke to suggested that big cities might actually profit in this scenario, because they could tax more locally, and use that local tax to spend as they please.

"Depending how the taxes are structured, it could be that you minimize the great sucking sound of wealth being pulled out of the cities [by the federal government], leaving it for cities to do what they will," says Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places research group and codirector of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. "And I think they would make better decisions, typically." And why not? Of course cities have a better idea of how to spend money than the federal government. It's all local.

If cities have access to more funds to spend as they please, urban spaces could become more desirable than ever. Wealth would continue to concentrate in spaces that reward tax-paying citizens with unparalleled public amenities. Imagine the New York or San Francisco of today, taken to extremes. "One trend you see globally is that the mayors of the primary cities tend to be very creative, less ideological, and they’re making really fabulous decisions," says Larson. "These are places that young people increasingly want to live and work."

But these cities wouldn’t necessarily become utopias—at least not for the poor. In fact, Metcalf cautions that with federal funds being pulled on social services at the federal level, the rural poor may be forced to immigrate toward cities in search of a better life, only to find they can’t possibly afford to live there. And if cities choose to cater their new tax money to the desires of the wealthy, then it's hard to imagine that local tax money would make up Trump's looming federal cutbacks on public and affordable housing. Trump's pick for HUD secretary, Ben Carson, once equated federal fair housing to communism.

"We could see a return to third-world poverty levels if [the Trump administration] succeeds at eliminating Medicare and the rest of the social safety net," says Metcalf. "The people who are poor will not just be out of work, they will be living in a level of [misery] we haven't seen since the New Deal."

In this future, poverty collides with privilege in cities, playing out in the architectural fabric. In other cities around the world where great wealth coexists with great poverty, shantytown slums and tent cities tend to spring up around a city’s periphery because residents have nowhere else to go. American cities may follow suit. Wealth would be framed in poverty, and the best places to live in America would be wrapped in the worst.

Read Chapter 5: The Stupid City That Can’t Innovate

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