New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to fight inequality during his first term in office

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Newly-elected American mayors
spearhead fight against inequality

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

24 February 2014: President Obama pledged to work towards reducing income inequality in the United States in his 2014 State of the Union Address, building on his 2012 Address when he called inequality the “defining issue of our time”. Despite the President’s call to action, relatively few urban mayors in the US have publicly pointed to inequality as a key problem facing their cities. But several recently elected American mayors, including those in New York City, Boston, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh, have committed their administrations to working to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in their cities.

New York City’s new mayor, Bill De Blasio, made inequality a primary theme of his electoral campaign last year, throwing a national spotlight on the issue. He famously described New York as a “Tale of two Cities”, saying that while Wall Street has rebounded above its pre-crisis levels, for millions of ordinary citizens the economic recovery has been slow in coming.

When Lovely Warren was elected to her first term as Mayor of Rochester, New York in November 2013, she did what many other new mayor-elects do: she set up a transition team to guide her entry into office. The transition team wanted to involve the public, and one of the ways they did this was to set up focus groups. Each focus group was comprised of regional leaders (most of whom lived in the suburbs), and each addressed a topic of importance to the City: economic development; education; fiscal responsibility; jobs and workforce development; neighborhood quality of life; and public safety. The focus groups met separately, had different facilitators, and shared no members. Yet the six focus groups, working separately, came to the same overarching conclusion: concentrated poverty and inequality of income and opportunity are at the root of the economic, educational, fiscal, employment, livability, and safety problems facing the City of Rochester. Each focus group recommended that Mayor-elect Warren make poverty and inequality a central part of her agenda.

Over the past couple of years, national opinion polls by the Pew Research Center, ABC News/Washington Post, and others have found that about two-thirds of Americans support policies to address income inequality. But other polls have found that Americans, by a slight majority, say that current inequality is acceptable, at least for now. Americans are conflicted over the issue, perhaps because all young people and most working adults have known only growing income inequality their entire lives and see little plausible alternative.

People want higher wages, but not the higher costs that must accompany increased pay envelopes, and so manufacturing goes where labor costs are low. Economists consider public policies to protect American industries from foreign competition to be inevitably counterproductive in a world of footloose capital, and so do policymakers. Tax increases for the wealthy might help reduce inequality, if they are used to pay for public education for the poor, but this would require a long-term commitment to higher taxes, and Congress and state legislatures have shown no inclination to support multi-year tax increases for anyone. Affordable housing for families could help, if it were built in high-performing school districts, most of which are in suburbs with little interest in building more than token amounts of affordable family housing. City residency requirements for city workers, including school employees, might make a dent in the inequality problem in cities.

The US Census shows that poverty is moving to the suburbs. The number of poor people in American suburbs grew 65 per cent between 2000 and 2010 as poor immigrants and workers moved out of cities to be closer to jobs and better public schools. Living wage ordinances would likely help the suburban poor more than the urban poor that still have to cope with failing schools and unsafe streets. Salary caps for CEOs and Wall Street-types? An end to financial subsidies for businesses that simple relocate within the same region or state or create minimum-wage jobs? A guaranteed income for all Americans?  Inter-municipal revenue sharing? There are many ways to attack inequality that could potentially add up to a big difference, but who will do the attacking?

City mayors practical and political options for tackling inequality are limited. They require county, state, and federal government support. Most of the options that might make a difference are considered “heavy lifts” because they are opposed by powerful interest groups, including large segments of the public. Also, mayors are mindful that they lose elections because the snow isn’t plowed during snowstorms or the budget isn’t balanced, not because half of the city’s residents are poor.

Still, many American mayors are redoubling their efforts. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is revamping workforce development programs to provide career training, including internships and apprenticeships, for disadvantaged youth in well-paying professions. And newly-elected Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is continuing his predecessor’s emphasis on workforce housing by providing tax credits to developers of affordable units in high-cost neighborhoods.

Clearly, inequality has touched a nerve with the American public. In New York City, the mayor is providing a voice for the public disquiet. In Rochester, on the other hand, community leaders are urging mayoral leadership. The discussion may be emerging from different places, but the discussion is alive in most communities.

Solving inequality will require more taxes, more spending, and more government to confront the worst aspects of globalization and technological change. It’s a discussion about reducing the excesses of capitalism, which most politicians prefer to avoid, and which makes mayors’ voices so important.

What a handful of mayors are doing in the US is elevating the discussion with the power of their office. They promise to use their cities as laboratories for developing new tools to reduce inequality that can be replicated across the nation. These urban mayors are providing a pivot around which supportive individuals and groups can revolve and coalesce and grow and, possibly, become a movement for genuine change.

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