Can Mayors Really Be Robin Hood?

Several mayors have promised to tackle income inequality, but some cast doubt that cities can make a difference.
by | February 5, 2014
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. AP

After weeks of rallies and get-out-the-vote efforts, followed by weeks of careful ballot counting, residents in the small city of SeaTac, just south of Seattle, learned that a measure to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour had passed. The big move by the little municipality of 27,000 last November electrified advocates for the poor and working class.

At the same time, on the other side of the country, New York City elected its new mayor, Bill de Blasio. During campaigning, De Blasio spoke often about the yawning gap between the rich and poor in the nation's largest city, and promised to raise -- modestly -- the city's income tax on the rich to help pay for programs aimed at lifting up the city's poor.

Besides De Blasio, Boston's Mayor Martin Walsh, Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray all campaigned on promises to battle inequality. Seattle's Murray says he supports raising the minimum wage to $15. Mayor Peduto has spoken about broadening economic opportunities for Pittsburgh's working class. And Boston's Walsh has pledged to focus "on providing opportunity, support and upward mobility for the working families of Boston."

It's clear the issue of income equality is on the minds of the nation's political leaders, especially those elected to run some of the largest cities. After all, the problem is hard to ignore. The wages for middle-class Americans have stagnated in the past decade while the number of jobs has shrunk. One-third of the U.S. population now earns no more than twice the poverty level for a family of four.

But can mayors really affect income equality? Not surprisingly, skepticism abounds. Alan Berube, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, recently wrote that it's "folly" to think the new class of mayors can tackle the problems of inequality and job opportunity. Cities, Berube says, bear some of the blame for the recent rise in inequality in the first place. He cites the economic plans in many urban areas that focus on retail, sports and convention activities -- all of which create low-paying jobs. Urban housing policies too -- like zoning laws that restrict construction of affordable housing and cumbersome permitting processes --create supply problems that lead to higher, less-affordable prices.

Setting policies that make cities more progressive in terms of education and income to favor the poor, however, could in fact lead to even greater inequality, Edward Glaeser wrote in his book, The Triumph of the City. Without national policies for higher minimum wages and tax codes that are more progressive, local efforts to redistribute income could backfire and simply create concentrated pockets of poor families drawn to live in the few cities that can afford high wages and subsidized housing.

Sure mayors can create a climate of fairness by working with key stakeholders -- businesses, labor groups, nonprofits, the education community -- to develop opportunities for good paying jobs and affordable housing. But what mayors can really do, Glaeser and Berube say, is work with partners beyond the city limits: the more cross-border and regional partnerships, the better. It makes no sense to raise the minimum wage in just one jurisdiction. So, by focusing on what can be done collaboratively, city mayors may be able to move the ball forward on equality.

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