Do Mayors Still Care About Income Inequality?

It was a major issue in recent mayoral races. This year, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee is one of the few candidates talking about it.
by | October 2015
(AP)

Two years ago, voters in Boston, New York City, Seattle and several other large cities elected a new group of liberal mayors bent on scaling back income inequality. It was the same year that President Obama gave a speech on economic mobility, which he called “the defining challenge of our time.” While Obama proposed a higher minimum wage and expansion of tax credits for the working poor, mayors sought to test the limits of what local government could do to address macroeconomic problems rooted in national or international affairs, such as the inequities in the federal tax code or the competitive pressures brought on by global trade. Those elections have given rise to a series of local initiatives to raise the minimum wage, expand affordable housing, establish universal pre-kindergarten and mandate paid sick time for workers.

But this time around, income inequality doesn’t seem to be the same rallying cry it was in 2013. Almost half the nation’s biggest cities -- 23 of 50 -- have mayoral elections this year. Next month alone, voters will cast ballots for mayors in Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco and several other large cities. But there hasn’t been a lot of talk from mayoral candidates about combating inequality. Consider one effort from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who in May unveiled a 15-point “progressive agenda to combat income inequality” and called on civic leaders to sign onto his plan. The list of signatories is impressive -- members of Congress, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and 10 sitting mayors. But as of late August, only two mayoral candidates had given their endorsement: Mayors Pedro Segarra and Michael Brennan, who are running for re-election in Hartford, Conn., and Portland, Maine, respectively.

Is inequality no longer trending? “There are other issues in the urban political zeitgeist now, like the spike in violent crime, that are going to occupy airtime,” says Alan Berube, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It will still be there, but I don’t think it will be as prominent.” Last year, Berube analyzed the gap in household income between the top 5 percent and the bottom 20 percent in the nation’s 50 largest cities. Three of the cities that ranked in the top 10 for high income inequality (Boston, Los Angeles and New York City) held elections in 2013. Only one, San Francisco, has a mayor’s race this year.

Part of the difference may also have to do with geography. Two years ago, several of the high-profile elections were in the Northeast and on the West Coast, regions that skew liberal and, more important, tend to give cities greater freedom to self-govern. By contrast, most of the big-city races in 2015 are taking place in the South and Southwest, places like Charlotte, N.C.; Fort Worth, Texas; and Tucson, Ariz. Income inequality may not resonate as a campaign issue in those places. And would-be mayors in those redder states know they’d be more constrained in their ability to shape social policy under state law. In the past decade, more than a dozen states -- all with Republican governors and legislatures -- have passed laws forbidding municipalities from enacting local ordinances dealing with the minimum wage and other employee benefits.

Of course, income inequality is still a key concern in some races. Much of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s re-election campaign is focused on the growing wealth gap and dwindling stock of affordable housing in his city. And even in conservative states, some mayoral candidates are focusing on programs that would help people on the lower end of the economic spectrum. For example, Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter is pushing to expand public transit, an oft-cited solution when it comes to income inequality.

In Hartford, Mayor Segarra argues that income inequality is still a problem in his city. But campaign rhetoric tends to reflect voters’ concerns, and his city’s unemployment rate is still above 10 percent -- almost twice the state average. So when Segarra talks to voters, most don’t mention the broad topic of inequality. For them, the priority is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” he says. “It’s purely about jobs.”