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How Do Mayors Think About Inequality?

About half of U.S. mayors say they want to combat inequality, but they are less sure about redistribution.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio testifies during a state Senate Education Committee hearing. (Mike Groll/AP Photo)

As bad as inequality is across the United States as a whole, it is even worse in our major cities. The inequality of America’s metro areas mirrors that of the some of the most unequal nations unearth: New York’s is comparable to Swaziland, Los Angeles’ similar to the Dominican Republic, Chicago’s comparable to El Salvador, and San Francisco's similar to Madagascar. America’s largest, densest, most affluent, and most liberal-leaning cities are, in fact, the places where inequality is the highest.

Bill de Blasio has put addressing inequality and New York’s tale of two cities at the center of his administration. But what are other mayors across the nation doing to address the growing gap between rich and poor?

That’s the focus of a recent study of 72 mayors by political scientists Katherine Levine Einstein and David Glick in Urban Affairs Review. The survey asks mayors directly about the priority they place on addressing inequality, the kinds of redistributive policies and programs they are using and prefer, and the trade-offs they make with regard to inequality and redistribution.

The survey gauges this through a series of questions such as such asking mayors: “What are your current top two policy priorities?” or “In the next year, on what two issues do you plan to expend the most political capital?” It also compares mayors’ responses to their public statements and actual policies.

The authors then evaluated these answers and policy positions in light of factors like political partisanship, strong versus weak mayor systems, population size, taxes, government fragmentation, and economic competitiveness on the priority mayors place on inequality and redistribution and the trade-offs they make to address it.

Partisanship and city size are the biggest predictors of concern about inequality and redistribution

Inequality and redistribution are “relatively prominent” on mayors’ agendas, according to the study. About a fifth of mayors initiated redistributive programs of one sort or another to address inequality, and roughly 30 percent of mayors made public statements supporting redistributive initiatives.

About a fifth (18 percent) listed socioeconomic inequality as one of their top two policy priorities, compared to 33 percent who said economic development and 21 percent who said infrastructure. Roughly a fifth (19 percent) also said they were expending considerable political capital to address inequality, compared to 26 percent who said economic development and 24 percent who said infrastructure.

Proportion of mayors addressing inequality by party (Einstein and Glick)

The most important factor, not surprisingly, was political party. Roughly 35 percent of Democratic mayors implemented redistributive programs and roughly 50 percent made statements in support of redistribution, compared to five percent of Republicans for each.

Marginal effect on mayors’ support for redistribution in statements and programs (Einstein and Glick)

Size was also a factor. Mayors of bigger cities were more likely to endorse and enact redistributive policies. But there was little effect from factors such as taxes, or economic competition. Cities with strong mayor systems were less likely to say they supported redistributive policies but were more likely to enact them.

The Inequality Tradeoff

But how do mayors handle the trade-offs that come with addressing inequality? To get at this, the study asked mayors if they agree or disagree with this statement:

Cities should try to reduce income inequality, even if doing so comes at the expense of businesses and/or wealthy residents.

More than half of mayors (roughly 55 percent) said they disagreed with the statement. But a third said they agreed with it.

The authors underscore the salience of this finding—stressing the level of importance mayors place on addressing inequality. As they write, “the fact that any mayors, let alone one-third are willing to sacrifice important components of their cities’ tax bases to ameliorate inequality is striking.” Here again mayors broke down along party lines with more than half of Democratic mayors (53 percent) and just six percent of Republicans saying they were willing to make this trade-off.

The Gentrification Tradeoff

To further probe the kind of trade-offs mayors are willing to make to deal with inequality, the study asked mayors whether they agree or disagree with this question about gentrification (here, disagreeing is in line with greater redistribution):

It is good for a neighborhood when it experiences rising property values, even if it means that some current residents might have to move out.

Overall, 30 percent of mayors disagreed, while 40 percent agreed and 30 percent took no position. Interestingly, there was virtually no difference between Democratic and Republican mayors here. This may be because some mayors view rising property values and the tax revenues they bring as a “good thing” and perhaps feel they can use other public policies to address the needs of those who are displaced.

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With the rise of Trump, a growing number of urbanists believe that localism and local empowerment are needed to address geographic differences and cope with impending cuts in urban aid and in the social safety net. The study provides useful perspective on the issue of empowering cities and mayors.

On the one hand, it lends support to the view that mayors are willing to take on issues like inequality and policies like redistribution, which have long been seen as the purview of the federal government.

But on the other hand, it contrasts with the prevailing viewpoint that mayors’ strategies are more pragmatic and less partisan than those of national politics. Democratic mayors are far more likely to address inequality and develop redistributive policies and initiatives than their Republican counterparts. When it comes to inequality, party differences still very much matter even at the local level.

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