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Mayors Face a Reckoning With Racial Wealth Gaps

The median net worth of white households in the U.S. is almost eight times greater than that of Black households. Most mayors agree this is a problem but differ on what solutions are best.

Renters rally at Stanley Mosk Courthouse to protest eviction orders isuued.
A housing rights protest in Los Angeles. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of California, the Black households in the city have 1 percent of the wealth of white households.
(Irfan Khan/TNS)
A national survey of 126 mayors of cities with more than 75,000 residents found that two out of three are concerned “a great deal” or “a lot” about the racial wealth gap in their communities. This concern was shared by twice as many mayors in large cities as in smaller ones; surprisingly, more mayors (52 percent) of cities where housing costs are low had stronger concerns than those in cities with high cost of living (32 percent).

The Menino Survey of Mayors reflects rising concerns overall about the economy and debates on just how much racial inequality continues to be a drag on growth. A recent Pew Research survey found that Americans see strengthening the country’s economy as the top policy priority. While seven in 10 share this opinion, only four in 10 think addressing issues around race should be a top priority, despite the fact that less than two years have passed since the largest protests over racial inequality in the country’s history.

Racial equity and economic growth are intertwined, however. A 2020 Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions Report on the economic costs of Black inequality in the U.S. estimated that the U.S. economy would have benefited by $16 trillion if Black equity gaps had been closed two decades ago.

More equitable lending to Black entrepreneurs would have accounted for $13 trillion of this, the Citi economists said, and the remaining $3 trillion could have come from closing racial wage gaps and better access to housing credit and postsecondary education.

The Menino Survey has been conducted annually since 2014 by the Initiative on Cities at Boston University (BU) to identify the needs and priorities of mayors in large and mid-sized cities. It is supported by Citi and The Rockefeller Foundation.

Support, with Nuance

In surveys conducted over the past decade, the attitudes mayors have expressed regarding numerous issues have differed more by political party than by city size, says Katherine Levine Einstein, co-author of the Menino Survey and associate professor of political science at BU. Questions about race have produced some of the biggest partisan gaps, and that was true in the current survey.

Eighty percent of Democratic mayors had significant concerns about racial wealth gaps, as compared to 30 percent of Republican mayors. None of the Democratic mayors said they weren’t concerned about this problem at all, as compared to two in 10 of the Republicans. Even more Republican mayors (26 percent) were only a little worried about it.

“We asked a lot of questions about homelessness this year, and the partisan gap never got bigger than about 30 percent on those questions,” she says. “Here, you can see gaps as big as 50 percentage points.”

The survey didn’t explore the reasons behind these divergent attitudes, but Einstein sees them as a reflection of the ways that the respective national parties talk about race issues and their willingness to talk explicitly about the subject. Over the past year, a new layer of controversy has been added to public discourse about inequity by the introduction of scores of bills designed to keep discussion of systemic racism out of classrooms.

Past surveys have found that partisan mismatches between mayors and state leaders make for combative relationships no matter the issue. Democratic mayors in cities where state government is controlled by Republicans — as is the case in four of the country’s 10 largest cities — may find it especially hard to get as much support as they would like for programs addressing wealth gaps.

Concern doesn’t necessarily correlate with determination to act. But Einstein sees the fact that only four percent of Democratic mayors had only “a little” concern about this issue, while just over half chose the most extreme option, “a great deal,” as a sign that it has significant traction.

“What we can’t glean from the data is whether they’re not supportive of more aggressive policy actions to address racial wealth gaps because they don’t know what sort of policies would be most effective or because they’re scared of the political ramifications,” she says.

The Limits of Influence

Recognition of a racial wealth gap is the first step, says Einstein, but there’s not a lot of agreement among local leaders about what should be done about it now that it’s been recognized.

Mayors who were worried about the wealth gap in their communities expressed high levels of support for programs targeted at Black and Latino citizens, such as programs to increase the number of small businesses owned by Blacks and Latinos and improve their access to capital and programs to increase home ownership.

On the other hand, only about four in 10 expressed support for implementing programs like a universal basic income pilot in Stockton that provides $500 a month to low-income residents or a reparations program piloted in Evanston, Ill., that offers $25,000 to Black residents to help them become homeowners.

Mayors showed a preference for providing technical assistance and mentoring to help small-business owners, or to support them through the procurement process. While they recognized the kinds of problems minority business owners face in obtaining credit and capital, less than two in 10 said they had significant influence over the state of small businesses in their communities or the gaps between white-owned and nonwhite-owned businesses.

In regard to housing, more than half of the mayors were in favor of increasing housing density and programs emphasizing homeownership over renting. A similar number favored protecting renters from eviction, even if costly to landlords.

Stimulus funds have enabled some communities to improve housing conditions for their most vulnerable residents, Einstein has found. But state preemption laws, such as those prohibiting cities from banning discrimination against citizens with housing vouchers, can be a barrier to progressive approaches to housing.
A Real Black Friday event at a shopping mall in Cleveland showcased Black entrepreneurs.
(David Petkiewicz/

Data and Policy

The dimensions of wealth gaps vary from city to city, says Mingli Zhong, an economist at the Urban Institute.

In New York City, for example, the richest households have 800 times more wealth than the poorest. In Rochester, the third-largest city in New York, the gap is much less — not because everyone is well off but because low levels of wealth are consistent across demographics. Seattle is an example of a different kind of balance, where a relatively high level of wealth is common to diverse groups.

Policies to address wealth gaps in a community need to be based on a solid understanding of the financial health of the individual citizens in it. The Urban Institute has a research agenda to gather and organize such evidence, Zhong says.

As part of this work, it developed a city-level dashboard with detailed profiles for a group of 60 cities, using de-identified credit bureau records and data from sources including the Census Bureau, FDIC surveys and Brookings Institution analysis of IRS filings. City profiles of each city offer insight into data points such as the median credit score of citizens, median delinquent debt, home foreclosure rates and the percentage of residents who are housing-cost burdened.

“What city leaders usually want is really local-level data,” says Zhong. “We use public survey data, and machine learning models to uncover data that is not available from the surveys.”

The dashboard identifies nine “peer groups” according to factors such as growth, housing cost and economic stability and offers strategies to improve the financial health of citizens for each group.

Urban Institute is currently working on updating the dashboard, Zhong says. Better data can help local leaders target wealth-building programs, whether financial education, “baby bonds,” state-sponsored retirement savings programs or banks in post offices. Along with the dashboard, Zhong hopes to see data accumulate regarding the results from implementing these and other strategies.

The next step, says BU’s Einstein, is working out how to get from mayors widely recognizing the racial wealth gap to working out “which policies they will support to actually do something about it.”
Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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