This aerial view looking north shows a portion of retail giant Amazon.com's corporate headquarters (bottom center and right) in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, Washington as seen from a helicopter in 2012. Anthony Bolante/Reuters

If cities are going to sell the farm to Amazon, then the proceeds better benefit the entire community, especially those who can easily be left behind.

The specters of white worker angst and racial disparities that took center stage during the 2016 presidential election created conditions for a corporate hero to swoop in and make America great again.

Enter Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stage left.   

The tech mogul and newspaper owner has big-city mayors outstretching their arms for the possibility of accommodating and hosting Amazon’s “H2Q” headquarters. The company’s request for proposal (RFP) pronounced that HQ2 will hire 50,000 people for an industry that is positioned to propel cities towards the “next economy,” according to research by the Brookings Institution. The average annual salaries of HQ2 employees will exceed $100,000. Amazon expects to outlay $5 billion in capital expenditures, an amount that could build a small Gotham.

By all means, provide the jobs to cities that need them. It’s not just Trumpian to want American companies to create jobs in the U.S. and invest in the country’s workers. But if governments courting Amazon really have the best interests of their residents at heart, they must require more of the company than a list of Amazon’s wants and some job openings. If cities are going to sell the farm, then the proceeds better benefit the entire community, especially those who can easily be left behind.

Cities don’t just need jobs—and even high paying positions are insufficient. They also need to eradicate racial and gender disparities, provide work training programs, and they need to better prepare for the inevitable natural and manmade disasters that threaten citywide prosperity. Cities deserve a progressive company, one that accounts for societal gains alongside typical financial profits.

In a browning America, Amazon won’t miraculously create a more diverse workforce. Among current U.S. managers at Amazon, 66 percent are white, 21 percent are Asian, 5 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are black, according to 2016 self-reported data. Amazon’s entire U.S. workforce better reflects the country’s population, with employees that are 48 percent white, 21 percent black, 13 percent Asian, and 13 percent Hispanic. However, black people make up less than 5 percent of the pale male tech industry in general, so meeting the needs of diverse cities isn’t a given with the arrival of Amazon. Consequently, mayors should lay out conditions or rules of engagement that address the needs of their diverse residents.

Cities can also demand Amazon’s presence to generate resources for workforce training and disaster preparedness. A new Brookings report on Pittsburgh found unaddressed workforce development significantly threaten economic growth and competitiveness. In addition, the impacts of hurricanes Harvey and Irma show us that we can’t keep relying on federal bailouts for inevitable disasters. Whether it be forces of nature or manmade economic, social or political, storms will come. Corporations must contribute a fair share to the community chest.  

But trading jobs for deep tax breaks that vying cities are asked to accept will come at the expense of needed resources. Amazon would have to deviate from its current framework of getting tax incentives from states and municipalities to meet cities’ progressive agenda. The economic development policy group Good Jobs First, which has followed Amazon’s moves preceding the announcement, found that “Amazon has continued to receive subsidies valued at least $115 million (not including four deals of undisclosed value), for a long-term total exceeding $1 billion.”  

Not everyone is ready to work at Amazon, but shouldn’t those residents be given an opportunity to get ready? A progressive company is also one that’s willing to invest in communities not yet ready to work. In the Brookings Institution report Meet the Out of Work, authors Martha Ross and Natalie Holmes tease out the specific employment needs in the largest cities in the country. Even though the United States is defined as in a state of full employment because we theoretically have more jobs in the U.S. than people to fill them, specific populations are chronically out of work. Some cities with higher concentrations of undereducated people need bridge programs, which offer academic preparation before receiving job training. Other cities really need Amazon to include apprenticeships and transitional jobs programs to all future workers.

The carrot Bezos uses for social change lies in one of his preferences in his RFP for “cultural community fit,” which includes support of a diverse population and elected officials eager and willing to work with the company. Given the rest of the criteria listed in the proposal, there are realistically only about two dozen cities that stand a chance, even though places like Ferguson, Baltimore or Detroit really make a strong case if Amazon considered the historical disenfranchisement of industries that were also once forward facing but ultimately turned their backs on black people.

Historic disenfranchisement by employers, criminal justice systems and housing policy should not preclude cities from entering the competition for Amazon. In fact, that should be a reason for entering a space. HQ2 could bring a small piece of justice to majority black cities like Ferguson, Baltimore, and Detroit.

The way many cities have tried to achieve racial equity is through non-profit work and philanthropy. Clearly that hasn’t been enough. Cities need companies to want to be a part of progressive change, something Bezos has expressed a desire to do. In 2010, Bezos was quoted in a Reuters’ article telling Charlie Rose, “In many cases, for-profit models improve the world more than philanthropy models, if they can be made to work.” Let’s hope the competition makes Amazon more progressive than it already is.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of a highway
    Transportation

    Americans Are Spending Billions on Bad Highway Expansions

    PIRG’s annual list of “highway boondoggles” includes nine transportation projects that will cost a total of $25 billion while driving up emissions.

  2. Maps

    The Squirrel Census Answers a Question You Weren’t Asking

    How many squirrels live in New York City's Central Park? Finding the answer was surprisingly complicated.

  3. a photo of a woman covering her ears on a noisy NYC subway platform
    Life

    My Quixotic Quest for Quiet in New York City

    In a booming city, the din of new construction and traffic can be intolerable. Enter Hush City, an app to map the sounds of silence.   

  4. Rows of machinery with long blue tubes and pipes seen at a water desalination plant.
    Environment

    A Water-Stressed World Turns to Desalination

    Desalination is increasingly being used to provide drinking water around the globe. But it remains expensive and creates its own environmental problems.

  5. Design

    What Cities Can Do to Help Birds and Bees Survive

    Pollinators—the wildlife that shuffle pollen between flowers—are being decimated. But they may still thrive with enough help from urban humans.

×