Big Cities Aren't as Bad as People Think

Paul Krugman argues that the pervasive myth of cities as crime-ridden cesspools harms democracy and creates a false contrast between urban and small-town America.

July 21, 2021, 12:00 PM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Micha Weber / Shutterstock

In an op-ed for the New York Times, Paul Krugman assesses the "durable myth" that American cities teem with crime, violence, and disease. "Why do so many politicians still believe that they can run on the supposed contrast between urban evil and small-town virtue when many social indicators look worse in the heartland than in the big coastal metropolitan areas?," he asks. In fact, the country's "biggest social problems are in the 'eastern heartland,' an arc running from Louisiana to Michigan. This is where an alarmingly large number of men in their prime working years don’t have jobs and where 'deaths of despair' — that is, deaths from alcohol, suicide and drug overdoses — are running high." 

These problems, Krugman writes, have economic causes: "The rise of a knowledge economy has led to a growing concentration of jobs and wealth in large, highly educated metropolitan areas, leaving much of small-town and rural America stranded. And this loss of opportunity has ended up being reflected in social disintegration, just as the disappearance of jobs did in many inner cities half a century ago." And while the Trump administration downplayed the impact of COVID-19 partly because it was seen as an urban problem, the numbers don't bear that out: "South Dakota has roughly the same population as San Francisco; it has had four times as many Covid deaths."

Krugman also questions misconceptions about who pays for federally funded assistance programs. "For example, do red-state voters know that federal spending in their states — much of it taking the form of benefits from Social Security and Medicare — greatly exceeds the taxes they pay to Washington?" Cynical politicians, he writes, "disparage some parts of the country and suggest that those regions aren’t part of the 'real America'" with often disastrous results. "Cynicism has effectively killed thousands of people in the pandemic — and it could, all too easily, end up killing democracy."

Monday, July 12, 2021 in New York Times

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