Is It the Job of City Government to Decrease Inequality?

The New York mayoral candidates come at the question from different sides.

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The Atlantic

"Do you actually think it is the role of city government to decrease inequality?"

That question was posed to Republican New York mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota, and again in slightly different words to his opponent, Democrat Bill de Blasio, at The Atlantic's CityLab summit Tuesday. Though framed in the context of a local election, the question has universal application to the way city governments interact with city residents. Is it, in fact, the job of a mayor to take an active role in reducing the gap between rich and poor?

In the past, Lhota and de Blasio have answered the question from different sides. Lhota recently told The New York Times he feels that government should generally be hands-off. Straying only slightly from that position in his CityLab interview, Lhota said local government can indeed address income inequality but suggested doing so through indirect means — namely, by expanding the city economy.

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"When you expand your economy there are benefits that come all the way across the board: more revenues for your city, more opportunities for your city, more jobs," he said. "I believe you deal with income inequality — the only way to deal with income inequality — is expanding the economy, allowing the unemployed to be employed, and allowing the underemployed to get into a career path."

Lhota did offer some more direct ideas for reducing the inequality gap. He discussed improving education by promoting charter schools as well as by offering online continuing education programs to adults. More tangibly, he suggested creating more affordable housing by buying unused land beside the Long Island Railroad in Queens and Brooklyn and the 30 post offices that are slated for sale in the city.

De Blasio, meanwhile, has built his campaign on a "tale of two cities" dichotomy that stresses the need to actively reduce income inequality. He said a focus on economic growth alone doesn't go far enough. He would prefer a more "aggressive" intervention that targets inequality at the source — namely, the youth — and makes city government an "agent of social progress."

His short-term plans for facilitating that progress include increasing service-sector wages and expanding affordable housing. But the key to removing the income gap in the long-term, he said, is early education. Citing research on the importance of pre-Kindergarten programs, de Blasio said down the line they would make a "significant dent" on the lack of economic mobility that has reached a "crisis point."

"Greater achievement in school, higher likelihood to attend college, increased chances to escape poverty — this is what local government must be in the business of doing," he said. "This kind of idea is what great cities have always been about. They are not defined just by their soaring skyscrapers and majestic bridges and robust infrastructure. Rather, cities are defined most fundamentally by their extraordinary human capital. And great cities not only have the ability to attract human capital, they have the ability to create it by lifting people up, and ensuring that everyone has a real opportunity to live our their dreams."

Top image: New York City mayoral candidates Joseph Lhota and Bill de Blasio speaking at The Atlantic's CityLab summit.

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