Vulnerable Communities: Research, Policy, and Practice in Small Cities, edited by James J. Connolly, Dagney G. Faulk, and Emily J. Wornell (Cornell University Press, 288 pp., $31.95)

Most writing about cities focuses on large metropolises, but small cities often face the greatest challenges. Forty-six million Americans live in small municipalities—those between 20,000 and 200,000 people—with stagnant or declining populations. This figure matches nearly exactly the 45 million living in the nation’s 40 largest municipalities.

These numbers come from the editors of Vulnerable Communities, a new academic collection of papers presented at the 2018 Small Cities Conference at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana—a state that, like most of its northern industrial neighbors, has no shortage of struggling small cities and towns. Indeed, Muncie itself, famous for being the subject of Robert and Helen Lynd’s “Middletown” studies, was a once-thriving small city that is now a shell of its former self, aside from the university. Hence, Ball State has a particular interest in the problems of small cities.

Each city’s profile here illuminates various aspects of small-city problems. By and large, the chosen examples are not characteristic of the stereotypical struggling northern post-industrial city. One portrait looks at a growing college town in Virginia, another at a struggling inner-ring suburb near Birmingham, Alabama, and still another at Sioux Falls and Fargo, which, though small by the book’s definition, are the largest cities in their states and doing well, as are the principal cities of many other states.

Three chapters in particular stand out for shedding light on both the problems and solutions of small cities. The first involves a small-city typology created by city planner Alan Mallach, who begins by noting that small cities cannot easily imitate the successful models of large cities, since they generally lack the critical mass necessary for agglomeration effects from talent concentrations, amenities, and other factors. Thus, their ability to develop knowledge-economy industries is limited.

Mallach identifies two types of small cities that have managed to overcome this strategic disadvantage to some degree, as well as one less-successful type. The first successful type is what he calls “well-positioned cities,” which, due to accidents of history, have some asset or amenity that helps offset their other weaknesses. New Haven, with Yale University, is one example; Rochester, Minnesota, with the Mayo Clinic, is another. The second type is what Mallach calls “production cities.” These cities have successfully replaced their old industrial base with various new blue-collar industries sufficient to generate widespread employment and middle-class wages in the absence of a knowledge economy. Most of these cities, such as Greenville, Ohio, are really small towns, however, not small cities.

The third, less-successful small city in Mallach’s typology is the “urban transfer payment city.” These places, like Youngtown, Ohio, subsist almost entirely off a variety of subsidies, including traditional welfare programs like food stamps, state and federal municipal aid, Medicare and Medicaid, student loans and Pell Grants, and other such programs. In these cities, even many residents holding what appear to be marketplace jobs with private health insurance—such as employees of hospitals or colleges—are indirectly supported by transfer payments. The future of such places is grim.

Economist Michael Hicks offers a depressing chapter on so-called “multipliers,” which illustrate the indirect impact of economic changes. For example, a multiplier would show that, for every X new jobs created in a new manufacturing plant, Y new jobs in other sectors are created along with it. This multiplier effect, or indirect impact, offers a key rationale for economic subsidies in many places. Hicks finds that these multipliers have declined substantially over time, however. Additionally, he shows that multipliers are asymmetric: the multiplier effect for job losses in small industrial cities is bigger than the multiplier effect for job gains. This means that, even if a town manages to replace every manufacturing job it loses, it will still lose ground. Faced with this discouraging math, Hicks argues that developing human capital through better education is the best way forward.

In her chapter, Ball State anthropologist Jennifer Erickson means to celebrate refugee resettlement in the Dakotas as a possible solution for declining small cities, but her article implicitly undermines its own thesis. She cites a Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that minorities, including refugees, have a poverty rate between 30 percent and 40 percent. Increasing numbers of refugees led to a significant increase in demand for social services in her profiled cities of Sioux Falls and Fargo. It took more than 10,000 immigrants to “help create or preserve” 500 manufacturing jobs (with undisclosed wage levels). As with most such economic-development claims, this result is likely exaggerated. Note that Erickson says only that the immigrants were a “help” in job creation or retention. And according to her own findings, importing refugees requires changing the culture of a city and reeducating its residents to become more “intercultural.” She cites numerous complaints about discrimination, including the now-all-too-common scenario in which even the people dedicated to fighting racial insensitivity get accused of it. Refugee resettlement appears to have introduced into these cities a permanent state of civic discord—something Erickson notes is absent from Bismarck, North Dakota, where far fewer refugees resettled.

And cities like Sioux Falls were, again, the largest in their states and economically prosperous. Their economies were strong enough to absorb refugees into jobs. More stagnant cities, such as those Mallach identified as being dependent on transfer payments, would struggle to do even that. Refugee resettlement therefore appears to work best in larger, already-diverse cities with thriving economies.

With all the challenges facing small cities lacking some lucky attribute like being their state’s biggest city, a state capital or major university town, or having significant natural amenities, it’s no wonder many writers and scholars prefer to focus on big cities. But with so many people still living in smaller, struggling communities, we need more good research and thinking on their challenges.

Photo by Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images


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