This is why metropolitan vs provincial is the new dividing line in politics

Protestors at Trump Tower, New York City, last August. Image: Getty.

There was no tension over which candidate would carry New York in November’s presidential election. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump claimed it as their home state, and such claims have usually conferred an advantage. But the state hasn’t voted for a Republican since 1984: Trump never had a chance.

Yet headline results can obscure as much as they reveal. Hillary Clinton beat Barack Obama’s performance in several counties in and around New York City but she lost ground in the state as a whole – and upstate, Trump surged. In the largely rural Franklin County, he turned Mitt Romney’s 62-36 loss in 2012 into a 50-43 victory.

The pattern was replicated across the US. The electoral college encourages us to think in terms of red (Republican) states fighting blue (Democratic) ones. The facts are more complicated: Southern conurbations such as Houston and Miami moved towards Clinton; small towns and rural areas in historically blue states swung to Trump.

Nor is this trend unique to the US. Across the Western world, cities are opting for progressive or establishment causes while the provinces vote for extremist or populist candidates. In Britain’s referendum on EU membership last June, most cities were markedly more pro-European than their hinterlands. The far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer won majorities in the Austrian countryside while the pro-Green Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed in Vienna, Salzburg and Linz. And polls suggest that, should the Front National’s Marine Le Pen win in France, it will be thanks to la France profonde.

It is not quite right to imagine this fault line as lying between city and countryside. Sunderland’s stronger-than-expected vote for Leave was the first sign of an earthquake to come, and even though other northern cities chose Remain the vote was often close. Trump would never have won without the surge in support from smaller cities in the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio. Five outer London boroughs voted for Brexit and Staten Island voted for Trump. Meanwhile, rich commuter suburbs in Connecticut and Kent were enthusiastic backers of Clinton and Remain.

There are other ways of describing the divide: metropolitan and provincial; booming and struggling. “I quite like ‘cosmopo­litan and shrinking’, because it combines attitudinal and economic factors,” says Will Jennings, a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Southampton who has researched this division. Certain areas – big cities, administrative centres, university towns – “combine dynamic economies with a more mobile population and socially liberal attitudes”. Others are blessed with none of those things. The physical gap between these places can be a matter of a few miles. The cultural gap can seem unbridgeable.

So, if the difference between the two types of place is not merely physical, what is it? Partly it’s a matter of demographics. The populations of Jennings’s “shrinking” places are usually older, and less likely to have a degree. They are also less ethnically diverse than the more cosmopolitan big cities and they worry about immigration, though they are largely untouched by it.

All these factors, however, can be traced back to another, bigger one: the difference in the relationship between these two types of place and the modern economy. To put it crudely: big cities have won. Under globalisation, entire industries shipped overseas; and, with technological improvements, those that remain require far fewer workers. Towns that grew up to provide workers for a mine or a factory or the docks are now surplus to requirements. Their communities have, quite literally, lost their purpose.

Cities, on the contrary, are booming: the shift towards services has produced an overwhelming concentration of the best-paid jobs in a small number of global trading cities or research hubs. (Research from the Brookings Institution found that, if US counties could vote based on the size of their economies, Clinton would have beaten Trump by 64 per cent to 36.) This has created resentment in communities outside the lucky few. But it has also changed who lives there. Younger, more educated people leave to seek their fortune in London or Paris, Vienna or New York. Many of those who stay are older, less educated – and less liberal.

It is an oversimplification to talk about these voters as having been “left behind” by the modern economy. Older voters may be more reactionary, but they are also more likely to have wealth. Yet often they’ve been left behind in another, more literal sense: they are the ones who remain when others have gone. When Jennings calls these places “shrinking”, he isn’t speaking figuratively.

The result is a form of social sorting, in which groups of people with particular attitudes and life experience congregate in particular places, each viewing the other as decadent or backward. In a wide range of areas, such as social policy, trade and immigration, they want completely different things from their government.

Explaining why this division came about is the easy bit: much harder is working out what we can do about it. George Osborne’s solution was to improve transport links, to enable depressed northern mill towns to gain access to jobs now in London or Manchester or Leeds. While this could work in a small country like England, it’s hard to see it working out in Ohio.

This article was originally published in the New Statesman

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.