President Trump says that the congressional district of U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, is “a disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess” that is “considered the worst in the USA.”
The president said it, so it must be true, right? After all, Trump’s reputation for veracity rivals that of George Washington, right? Still, we were curious. After all, the operating principle in journalism has always been “if your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Is there any congressional district that might possibly be worse than Cummings’ district? And, in any case, how much better off are we?
Crime. Cummings represents half of Baltimore, and parts of two suburban counties. By crime measures, Baltimore is a pretty bad place. Based on FBI statistics, Baltimore last year had the 7th highest homicide rate in the country. If you’re looking for a partisan tie-in, there it is. Democratic congressman equals high homicide rate, right? Umm, not so fast. The highest homicide rate in the country is in East St. Louis, Illinois, which is represented by a Republican. Will Trump soon accuse Rep. Mike Bost of the 12th District of Illinois of representing the worst district in the country?
Let’s take a broader look at all types of violent crime. Baltimore violent crime rate is 1,566 incidents per 100,000 residents, as per the FBI. That’s high. However, the rate in the rest of Cummings’ district is a lot lower —511 in Baltimore County and 214 in Howard County. Comparison: 20 Virginia localities have higher crime rates than Howard County and five Virginia localities have higher violent crime rates than Baltimore County — Petersburg, Portsmouth, Danville, Norfolk, Richmond and Radford, in that order. Yes, Radford. The most recent apples-to-apples comparison we could find was from 2016, organized by County Health Rankings using FBI data. In that year, Radford had a higher violent crime rate of 582 per 100,000 residents, or 14% higher than Baltimore County. That’s likely a statistical anomaly due to the City of Radford’s small size — Radford isn’t known for being crime-ridden —but that’s the rate FBI numbers show anyway. Radford and Danville are represented by Republicans Morgan Griffith and Denver Riggleman; should they be expecting a tweet about what a bad place their districts are?
Let’s concede that some parts of Cummings’ district are bad places to be, but other parts aren’t. His is a district that covers inner-city Baltimore, but also includes Johns Hopkins University. It’s, um, diverse. You know what else is diverse? The 9th District of Virginia. It includes Virginia Tech, but also the two localities in the country that consumed more pain pills than anywhere else in the country — Norton and Martinsville. We don’t have Baltimore’s murder rate, but we have different types of problems. Does our high rate of opioid addiction make the 9th District a contender for “the worst in the USA”? We hope not, but if we’re going to compare and contrast districts, there are some categories where the 9th fares worse than Cummings’ district. For instance…
Income. Cummings’ district has a higher median household income than most congressional districts. There are 435 districts across the county; Cummings’ district has the 169th highest median household income — $58,128.
Of Virginia’s 11 congressional districts, six rank higher than that, five rank lower. In fact, the wealthiest congressional district in the country is now Virginia’s 10th District in Northern Virginia, represented by Democrat Jennifer Wexton. Here’s a statistic of some note: The 20th wealthiest congressional districts in the country are now represented by Democrats. That raises a fascinating question: Are Democrats, who historically claimed to be the party of the working-class, now the party of the rich?
But back to our subject: Two of the five Virginia congressional districts that have a lower median household income than Cummings’ are represented by Democrats (McEachin in the 4th and Bobby Scott in the 3rd) and three by Republicans (Riggleman in the 5th, Ben Cline in the 6th and Griffith in the 9th). Most of those districts rank in the 200 range — from 235 for McEachin’s District to 277 for Cline’s. But the 9th District ranks way down at 402, with a median household income of $40,882. It’s fair to say the 9th District — which runs from Salem to the Cumberland Gap — is one of the poorest in the country. The absolute poorest is the 15th District of New York, in the Bronx, represented by Democrat Jose Serrano. It has a median household income of $26,096. The second poorest is the 5th District of Kentucky, on the Virginia border, represented by Republican Hal Rogers. It has a median household income of $31,274. Who’s the worst now?
Health. Cummings’ district has one of the higher life expectancies in the country — 77.1 years. The highest is 83.1 years in the 19th District of California in Silicon Valley, represented by Democrat Zoe Lofgren. The lowest is in that Kentucky district represented by Rogers, with 72.1 years. Between poverty and health stats, it’s starting to look like that’s the worst congressional district in the country. Virginia’s 9th District is somewhat better but still one of the lowest in the country at 75.6 years.
Population. Trump said of Cummings’ district that “No human being would want to live there.” Yet two of the three localities in that district are gaining population. Suburban Howard County grew by nearly 12% since 2010, which makes it one of the fastest-growing in the country. By contrast, nearly half the counties in the country have lost population. Four of the five counties that last year had the highest rates of population decline are represented by Republicans. Some counties in the 9th came close to making that top five.
Trump wanted to know “why is so much money sent to the Elijah Cummings’ district” with so few apparent results. That same standard might apply to lots of districts — the 9th District among them. Will Trump hold Griffith responsible for poverty and pain pills and population losses in Southwest Virginia? By the logic the president applies to Cummings, he should. Of course, no Republican in Southwest Virginia would buy that logic, nor should they. The economic problems confronting Southwest Virginia were there long before Griffith took office; the same for Cummings’ district, as well. But think of it this way: When Trump disparaged Baltimore, he inadvertently disparaged Southwest Virginia, as well. The communities may look very different, but their problems are much the same — and tweeting doesn’t solve any of them.