Trump Talks Infrastructure, but City Issues Still on the Fringe

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The majority of American voters live in cities, and the 2016 presidential election candidates should pay more attention to the issues that matter most to them.

The nine top-polling 2016 GOP presidential candidates stepped up to the plate for last Republican debate of 2015 hosted by CNN at the Venetian Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on December 16, 2015. (photo: ABC News)

This is a guest post by Devon Hawkins-Anderson.

The nine leading Republican candidates took the stage this week in Las Vegas to debate for the last time before the February Iowa caucuses. In the aftermath of recent terror attacks abroad and on home soil, national security, surveillance, immigration and personal rivalries took precedence during the two-hour prime time event.

However, city issues were largely left unaddressed. While national security and surveillance issues are worth considerable time and attention on the debate stage, so are the domestic topics most affecting America’s cities — public safety, infrastructure, and the economy. According to American mayors, these issues are the primary concern of the 80 percent of Americans who live in cities.

The road forward for everyday Americans and cities is paved with investment in domestic capital and innovation. Refocusing national attention on cities as hubs of culture, innovation and economic activity will provide the catalyst that powers the U.S. well into the 21st century.

Most think of public safety as defense against horrendous acts of violence, such as those that recently occurred in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. However, cities and towns spend upwards of $64 billion on law enforcement operations annually. Despite huge local allocations towards crime reduction, crime remains a significant barrier to individual and family safety, quality of life, and social cohesion in cities across the country, particularly in racially diverse and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Amid talk of public safety on a global scale, candidates must acknowledge that safer communities at home create a safer world.

Few recall that the Interstate Highway Act of 1954 was funded with defense dollars, but on Tuesday night, Donald Trump made statements that reminded viewers of the inextricable link between domestic infrastructure investments, collective security and quality of life:

“In my opinion, we’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various [regimes] that frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now… it’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports and everything else that are all falling apart.”

Seldom recognized for his passion on infrastructure issues, Trump stood out from the pack when he called for the reallocation of war funds to all manner of infrastructure improvements, acknowledging that America’s aging infrastructure threatens to stymy future growth.

Similarly, the economy continues to be an intractable issue for American cities and the country as a whole. Following the White House declaration of full employment last month, many have forgotten about workers who have ceased looking for jobs as well as the perennially underemployed. According to the Georgetown Center, when these depressed job seekers are re-added to employment statistics, the real unemployment rate is considerably higher than reported. Regrettably, none of the candidates addressed the employment-to-population ratio (which measures employment among all working-age Americans, not just those actively looking for jobs) or cited economic growth as a formidable barrier for cities.

Sure, the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, mentioned infrastructure – but city issues are still on the fringe. The majority of American voters live in cities, and the 2016 presidential election candidates should pay more attention to the issues that matter most to them.

About the Author: Devon Hawkins-Anderson is the 2016 National Urban Fellow at National League of Cities. Contact Devon at anderson@nlc.org.