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POV: Memo to Boston’s Mayor on How to Fight Inequality

What Marty Walsh must do to make good on his promises

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There is a lot riding on Marty Walsh’s first term as mayor of Boston. He is, after all, inheriting the rich and complex legacy left by former mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01), with his 20-year rule over the city. Part of that complex legacy is that Boston ranks fourth in the country on the list of large American cities with the least equitable income distribution. While the city of Boston might be prospering, not all of its people are. Boston is a city of inequality, where the rich seem to get richer as the poor get poorer and middle class families move to the suburbs. Walsh knows this, and he has made the reduction of inequality a prominent part of his unfolding policy agenda. As we look to him for leadership on this dark cloud hanging over an otherwise shining city, the question that needs to be asked is whether the new mayor has the power to reduce inequities in Boston.

That is a fair question to ask, if we start with the understanding that Boston has a strong mayor form of government. Much power resides with the mayor, who sets and controls the budget, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA), and city agencies. Having power and tools at one’s disposal is one thing. Knowing where and how to start to move Boston toward more equity is another matter.

Beyond declarations, Walsh has to state openly and clearly what he considers to be the drivers of inequality in Boston, even if it means antagonizing the people and institutions that generate and accumulate wealth in and for the city. If Walsh starts here, he will then have to develop policies that not only try to mitigate the outcomes of inequality, but attack its root causes. Inequality is not just about the poor, but also about the way the rich become rich.

From there, an important step would be to identify the inequities that require the most attention from his administration, establish a baseline, and then task his administration with reducing or eliminating those inequities. An example is public health. The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) report Health of Boston 2012-2013 highlights the significant health disparities that exist in Boston based on race and ethnicity. Infant mortality in Boston, a reliable indicator of the health status of a population, is much higher for black and Latino infants than for white infants. Such disparities exist across age ranges and health conditions. The report explains that the social determinants of health—economic, environmental, neighborhood, and social conditions—are the strongest predictors of a community’s public health. It concludes that “health inequities will persist as long as social, economic, and environmental resources are distributed unfairly and unequally.” The mayor must make reducing those inequities a priority. To do so, he might charge key departments—BPHC, Inspectional Services, Boston Housing Authority, Police, Education, and Environment—with making inequality reduction their priority and establish budgets for that goal. Fighting inequality cannot be done without a coordinated effort across city departments.

The BRA, which has traditionally taken a major role in shaping the city’s economic development and strategic urban planning agenda, must be part of the solution to inequity, too. The types and locations of development projects prioritized by the mayor and the BRA have an impact on the levels and quality of inequality. Development decisions generate wealth and guide investments and employment opportunities to some neighborhoods rather than to others. Walsh inherited the promising Innovation District, 1,000 acres on the South Boston waterfront that Menino targeted for an entrepreneurial business district. The same energy, attention, and funds given to create that district have to be given to Roxbury and Dorchester. The Walsh administration must create neighborhoods of opportunity where the social determinants of health and wealth are currently stacked against the residents—and it must manage that without allowing the displacement that economic investment can bring.

Without clear funding, agency missions, and constant oversight, the mayor’s tools are blunt, and the actions risk being symbolic. The administration must not only articulate a definition of inequality and a strategy to attack it, but also a road map on how that strategy will be funded and managed. To that end, the mayor must pay attention to how he guides the city’s budget and makes decisions about the generation and distribution of municipal resources.

Finally, the mayor has to make sure to avoid what we call the “territorial trap.”  Inequality can be seen and mapped. It has a territory. Call it the neighborhood, district, or even a place-bound cluster of people. Yet by focusing on where inequality resides, we might forget that it is produced by forces and relationships that are well outside the boundaries of the neighborhood and city. This is where leadership beyond the city matters. If he is serious about inequality in Boston, Walsh must also take a major lead in regional and statewide policy debates about inequality in Massachusetts.

The mayor has the power within the city necessary to set the priorities, budget, benchmarks, and tone to significantly reduce inequities. He has both blunt tools and surgical instruments at his disposal. Yet, the mayor must also advocate on a regional and state level for practices and policies to further the goal of reducing inequities. The work takes intention, leadership, funds, and follow-up.

Enrique R. Silva, a Metropolitan College assistant professor of city planning and urban affairs and a faculty fellow at the Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, can be reached at ersilva@bu.edu. Eugene B. Benson, a MET adjunct professor of city planning and urban affairs and a School of Public Health adjunct clinical assistant professor of environmental health, can be reached at ebbenson@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on POV: Memo to Boston’s Mayor on How to Fight Inequality

  • nathan on 04.23.2014 at 8:58 am

    “the question that needs to be asked is whether the new mayor has the power to reduce inequities in Boston.”

    Personally, I would so “No he doesn’t.”

    In Dorchester and Roxbury, the Mayor might have enough influence and authority to add a couple of grocery stores to mitigate the food desert. This could be good for the neighborhoods.

    Beyond that, I am not aware of successful renovations of low wealth neighborhoods that avoided gentrification and displacement. Possibly there are some examples including community gardening – It would have been nice to have seen examples of the type of positive impact he expects Mayor Walsh to be capable of making.

  • PeterL on 04.23.2014 at 9:53 am

    In case you want pose any questions directly to the mayor, he will be hosting a AMA (Ask me anything) on the social media site Reddit tomorrow afternoon at 2:30. https://vine.co/v/MnJVLpEIhqP

  • Sara on 04.23.2014 at 11:00 am

    I appreciate the concept of using a public health lens to address inequities and lay a framework for creating a more equitable Boston.

    The Boston Public Health Commission not only includes information about health inequities in the Health of Boston report, but they have made addressing these inequities part of their official mission since 2006, including creating a Center for Health Equity and Social Justice (http://www.bphc.org/chesj/about/Pages/WhatisHealthEquityDisparities.aspx).

    That is part of Mayor Menino’s “complex legacy,” not a recent development.

    I would love to see Mayor Walsh continue to use a public health framework to reduce inequity by addressing the “social determinants of health.” Building on the existing work of the BPHC, he could increase the inclusion of public health in economic development strategy.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t seen that so far.

    Public health was removed from the Mayor’s cabinet and then aligned with human services. The “Health and Human Services” model is actually quite outdated, as it doesn’t take into account the more progressive view of using public health to guide economic and environmental development.

    It seems like we’re going backwards on this issue.

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