Presidential contender Cory Booker (D.) claimed in a Tuesday interview with the Carroll Times Herald that he can bring the same revitalization to rural America that he did to Newark, N.J.
But if Booker wants to do to rural America what he did to Newark, then rural America needs to watch out. Data show that the New Jersey metropolis where Booker was a city council member (1998-2002) and mayor (2006-2013) continued to struggle during and after his time in government.
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Following a campaign stop in Carroll, Iowa, Booker told the Times Herald that his approach to reinvigorating Newark could "100%" revitalize rural America.
"I have a chip on my shoulder for any community, rural, Appalachian Mountain, factory town, any communities that are looked down on or left for dead or disrespected or underestimated," Booker told the Times Herald. "That gets my blood boiling. I think that our rural areas have wealth, have potential, have possibility, if we will come to them creatively and think about ways to restore what I think are important parts of our heritage."
The paper also pointed to unnamed Newark developers who "say Cory Booker played a pivotal role in turning that city from a forlorn punch line—a dismissed patch of the nation—into a rebounding or even robust city."
There are metrics by which long-struggling Newark is doing better today than it used to. For example, Booker handed his successor, current Mayor Ras Baraka, a $93 million deficit, which Baraka eventually turned into a surplus. And several large companies have moved into the city.
But by comparison to the rest of the state and the rest of the country, the city continues to struggle, with labor and health indicators that "rural America" would not be jealous of.
Take, for example, the unemployment rate. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it was 6.1 percent as of the end of 2018 in Newark. That compares to 3.9 percent in both New Jersey and the United States as a whole.
Indeed, Newark has a consistently higher unemployment rate than either the rest of the state or the country, going back to at least 1990. Unemployment was either constant or rose while Booker served as councilman and mayor, although that was likely because of the nationwide effects of the Dot-Com Bust and Great Recession.
The poverty rate tells a similar, albeit even more grim, story. The share of Newarkers living with a household income below the poverty line actually rose under Booker’s mayoralty, maxing out at 36 percent in 2011. (Newark data were not available prior to 2005.)
The rate fell from then, but still remains elevated, with roughly 3 in 10 Newarkers living in poverty as of 2017 (the most recently available data). That figure is double the nationwide poverty rate, and three times the poverty rate in the state of New Jersey.
One key challenge facing rural America is the drug overdose crisis; any model for its revitalization would need to be finding a way to cope with it. But Newark has generally done no better than the rest of New Jersey in terms of preventing overdose deaths.
It did perform better than the United States as a whole during Booker's mayoralty (though not his time on city council), but that is likely an effect of which drugs were driving overdoses: Newark was simply less dependent on prescription opioids. Now, with fentanyl seeping into the national drug supply, Newark had more overdose deaths per 100,000 citizens in 2017 than either New Jersey or the United States as a whole. In other words, Booker got lucky during his term, but left a city unprepared for an overdose wave.
Of course, Newark faces any of a number of challenges that keep its poverty, unemployment, and overdose rates elevated. But it is hard to conclude that the city is a model for what rural America should look like, or that Booker's time in office had much of an effect on its economic well-being. If rural states—including those that turned red for Donald Trump in 2016—are looking for a revitalizer, Booker's local-government resume runs quite thin.