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The Small City That Gets Left Behind

In Chapter 7 of our Trump City series, countless small cities and towns flounder further beneath Trump's policies.

The Small City That Gets Left Behind

[Photo: Mshake/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.

For all of Trump's promises—from the $1 trillion in infrastructure improvements, to deporting countless illegal immigrants from our cities—none of his policies address the problems of his largest supporting vote: the town of 500,000 or under. These cities fall somewhere between small and rural—the sort of towns that this election painted red, filled with middle- to lower-class Americans facing few economic opportunities and a growing heroin epidemic.

"I don't think Trump’s policy is going to help these smaller cities one bit," says Kent Larson, director of the Changing Places research group and codirector of the City Science Initiative at the MIT Media Lab. "And I don’t think Democrats have been doing much to help them either."

While a reduction in taxes could make our big cities grow wealthier because they have both the scale and the jobs to make up the federal tax cuts at the local level, these small cities could be left behind entirely.

"I’m not that worried about the big blue cities. They’ll benefit from a reduction in taxes because less of their money gets pulled out," Larson continues, alluding to how big cities might easily self-tax to make up lost funding from the government. "But for this country to get back on track, you have to help these smaller, disconnected places that went for Trump hoping he’d turn it around and bring back manufacturing jobs and the like, which I don’t think will happen."

Many manufacturing jobs that America lost have since been automated by robots, not simply deported overseas, which means "bringing them back" will be next to impossible. Meanwhile, the private investment Trump has promised in his infrastructure plan will do little to strengthen the smaller economies in America. Indeed, small metro areas—the size of Fort Wayne, Indiana; Peoria, Illinois; Greenbay, Wisconsin—aren’t likely to be as enticing to private investors interested in new infrastructure projects, which are more profitable at larger scales. We’ve seen this proven already with the deregulation of airlines in the 1970s, which allowed airline companies to fly only the most profitable routes, causing many major carriers to pull flights out of small regional airports.

The truth is, smaller cities are hurting, even in vibrant, international economies—and it's vital to connect them to big cities to share the wealth. "China is investing huge amounts of money for rail networks for freight, and moving people, to connect the interior of the country to the coast," says Larson. "They have the same kind of equity problem. If you leave it to the market, it’s not going to happen. There’s just no financial incentive to build the infrastructure."

In Trump’s America, the small city is the forgotten city, unable to exploit the Trump administration’s best tax incentives like a big city can, cut off from the saviors of private investment, and starved of access to larger cities where opportunities may lay.

There is one notable exception to this vision of small-town America under Trump: We are likely to see new highways and bridges in these smaller cities, because these entities are toll-able—and small-town and rural America relies heavily on cars to get around. So will these new roads create jobs for areas that need them most? That’s still up for debate. But new roads only take seven years to build. And all those long-term, unionized manufacturing jobs? They really aren’t coming back.

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