Two out of three U.S. mayors say that in the long run, cities will be able provide “better opportunities to more people,” but this optimism is blunted by severe budget cuts and a belief that life is not likely to improve for those who have suffered the worst effects of the pandemic. The findings are part of the annual Menino Survey of 130 mayors in 38 states who responded to a series of questions about the impact of COVID-19 on the future of their cities.
“This year, while we still hear glimmers of optimism, their pessimism in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic is palpable,” said Graham Wilson, director of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities, in releasing the findings.
Participants in the survey were from cities whose demographics, average population size and geographic region mirror the characteristics and variety of American cities as a whole. In view of this, the similarity of responses from city to city was notable, says David Glick, the report’s lead author and an associate professor in the Political Science department at Boston University.
“There's quite a bit of consensus among mayors from a wide variety of cities,” he says. “Some got hit with COVID earlier, some were hit with it later, some are bigger, some are smaller – but there are plenty of instances where they are in this together and seeing things in the same ways.”
Budget cuts are a major worry, limiting cities’ ability to maintain essential services, much less invest in recovery. When asked which areas might require “drastic” cuts, schools, parks and recreation, and mass transit and roads were named by a third or more of respondents.
Given that schools represent about 40 percent of local government expenditures, they are a prime target for cuts, but COVID and its uncertain trajectory have added significant new costs, from technology for remote learning to supplies for cleaning and disinfecting and facility modification. It’s possible more teachers will be needed in some cases to safely resume in-person instruction.
Schools will have to work overtime if they hope to catch up students who have fallen behind, and researchers continue to document the negative impacts of time away from school. A failure to adequately support schools could have a long-term impact on the economic growth of communities.
Dramatic Budget Cuts
Prospects for Businesses and Citizens
Mayors expect that segments of their communities that have been hit hardest by the pandemic will continue to face significant economic harm over the coming year, including Black and Latino residents, renters and non-white small business owners.
In addition, 81 percent expressed the belief that “racial disparities will persist.” It’s difficult to imagine how this can square with calls for change from the largest movement in U.S. history. The sense of urgency created by Black Lives Matter has been diffused by post-election chaos, but when the dust settles, Black voters who helped Biden to victory will expect to receive help.
Economic Harm, by Resident Group
“In a year from now, how much will members of each of the following groups in your city be feeling economic harm from COVID-19?” (Graph: BU Initiative on Cities)
Survey participants were also asked when they expected various business and cultural institutions to return to normal. About half expected real estate and banking and lending to achieve this by the end of 2020.
About a third replied “eventually” or “never” in regard to city government and even more felt this way about mass transit and schools. More than half placed arts and cultural institutions in the “eventually” or “never” categories. Following a year when the average earnings of American artists and creatives dropped to $14,000 some hope to push back against this through the recreation of Great Depression programs such as the Federal Art Project, or local efforts such as Denver’s COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund.
Returning to Normal
“When, if ever, will each of the following industries and institutions in your city ‘return to normal’ after COVID-19?” (Graph: BU Initiative on Cities)
This survey was conducted in the summer of 2020, says Glick, and it’s possible that the continuous accumulation of data and experience with the virus since then could have shifted attitudes about what’s possible to some extent. For example, early assumptions that cities with the highest density would have the highest case rates have not borne out.
“Usually, the world doesn’t change that fast,” he says.
Mayors were also surveyed regarding their preferences for state and federal policies that could help offset the economic impact of COVID-19. Only 13 percent felt that the CARES Act funding was enough to meet their needs.
“There were concerns that CARES Act money for small businesses in particular was insufficient,” says Glick. It remains to be seen how this or other local needs will be addressed in the next stimulus package. A September update to the HEROES Act includes funding for Paycheck Protection and Economic Injury Disaster Loan programs aimed at small businesses.
At the local level, residential eviction moratoriums, universal paid sick leave and a $15 mininum wage had the strongest support. Enthusiasm varied by party, however. Half of Republicans supported or strongly supported eviction moratoriums, as compared with 93 percent of Democrats. Ninety percent of Democrats favored universal paid sick leave, while 27 percent of Republicans did.
State/Federal Policy Reponses
“How strongly would you support the implementation of the following policies at the state or federal levels?” Graph: BU Initiative on Cities
The Future of City Life
Views regarding the future of city life are mixed. Sixty percent of the mayors believe that downtown office buildings will be “less desirable” and 40 percent expect public transit use will drop, possibly reflecting a 90 percent expectation that remote work will increase even after a vaccine is available.
On the other hand, the great majority believe that city residents will walk, bike and visit parks and greenspace more frequently. Only 40 percent believe that shopping at retail stores will return to the same levels.
Despite pessimism about progress in addressing systemic inequalities and a belief among more than three-fourths of those surveyed that “racial health disparities will persist,” the report notes that “the mayors were most optimistic about the overarching issue of cities and opportunity.”
“That’s one of the contradictions that I’ve been puzzling over,” says Glick.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of the Menino Survey, co-founded by the late Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. We apologize for the error.