The nation’s mayors say that poverty is the most pressing economic issue facing their communities—more so than either the shrinking middle class or income inequality. That finding is the key takeaway from the 2016 Menino Survey of Mayors, released earlier this month by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities (IoC).
The goal of the annual survey, now in its third year, is to identify what mayors see as the biggest challenges facing them and what their expectations are for the future. The survey is named for the late longtime Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01), who cofounded the IoC when he joined BU as a College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice in 2014, after his last mayoral term.
For this year’s study, 102 sitting mayors from 41 states were interviewed last summer as one of the most contentious presidential campaigns in decades played out—a campaign that contained inflammatory rhetoric over issues like immigration and inclusion. Respondents were overwhelmingly Democratic (70 percent), with Republicans making up 28 percent of those surveyed—these percentages match a recent study of the party affiliations of US mayors. Women made up one quarter of the survey base, and 80 percent of respondents were white.
The 2016 survey showed that poverty and race are now urgent issues for city leaders, who are concerned that poor and black residents are being marginalized. Half of the survey’s respondents said they were worried that blacks were being left out of the city’s life and economic opportunities, and 48 percent said they saw those living in poverty as being left behind. More than a quarter (28 percent) said Latinos were the most marginalized group in their community, while 27 percent cited immigrants as most marginalized. The mayors did not cite specific programs to address their concerns about excluded groups, but rather, said the “single best thing” they can do for these groups is to publicly emphasize that their city is inclusive and acknowledge that they are valued in the community.
When asked to name the top two groups city government needs to do more to help, 23 percent of the mayors listed poor residents—more than any other category—18 percent cited youth and 12 percent said racial minorities.
In listing their top two policy priorities, 20 percent cited socioeconomic issues such as poverty and inequality. The survey authors note that other priorities identified, among them those affecting quality-of-life (crime, planning, and health), cited by 25 percent, and economic development, cited by 20 percent, are bread-and-butter local government matters that are perennial concerns for city leaders.
The mayors’ repeated mentions of poverty was notable, says survey coauthor Katherine Levine Einstein, a CAS assistant professor of political science. “Over and over again on a series of open-ended questions designed to tap into mayors’ more specific priorities, and then more generally, on who government should be doing more to help and who has least access to government resources,” Einstein says, “we heard poverty and those living in poverty were either at the top of the list of priorities for mayors or among their top priorities.”
As for how best to address poverty, the mayors offered a range of solutions and priorities: 20 percent said making housing more affordable was the best way to solve the problem; another 20 percent listed education. Other solutions included jobs and skills training (14 percent) and providing better access to city services (10 percent).
IoC director Graham Wilson, a CAS political science professor, says that concerns “about who is excluded and who we need to do more with to involve them in the life of the city” were voiced by mayors across the country and across party lines. This year’s findings, he says, were largely a response to the bitter presidential campaign.
“When we were doing interviews, there was a lot of concern from mayors about the divisive rhetoric, about the exclusionary tone, of some of the comments. And that divisive tone was coming primarily from one side,” Wilson says, referring to the Trump campaign. “I think they were very concerned about that.”
He says the annual survey is designed to be a bridge between academic research and the real-life practice of city governance. As the only scientifically rigorous analysis of American mayors’ views, it is a reliable opinion gauge that could provide an opportunity for the Trump administration.
“It gives a clear sense of the issues, concerns, frustrations, and challenges that mayors are thinking about and working on,” Wilson says.
Another clear message from the survey was the value the mayors placed on their working relationships with the Obama administration. Many said they saw President Obama as a strong ally and were worried, based on the tenor of the presidential campaign, about what a Trump presidency would mean for their communities.
“This was not a partisan thing,” says David Glick, a CAS assistant professor of political science and a survey coauthor. “We were hearing from Democrats and others as well that the Obama administration has been a constructive partner for cities.”
Wilson says the relationship between the Trump administration and the nation’s mayors remains to be seen. “The question for the new administration is, are you prepared to listen to those concerns and be aware of the fact that these cities do have these concerns, and are you going to find a way of reaching out and reassuring them,” he says. “The majority of the country’s population live in cities. Cities account for an even larger proportion of GDP. They are centers of economic growth. And I think that both demographically and economically, it would be unwise to ignore them.”
The Initiative on Cities is hosting a Research Spotlight Presentation on the 2016 Menino Survey of Mayors Final Report tomorrow, Thursday, January 26, at 75 Bay State Road, from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The presentation and Q&A will be moderated by IoC director Graham Wilson and feature Menino Survey authors Katherine Levine Einstein and David Glick. The event is free and open to the public, but attendees are asked to register here.
Michael Goldberg can be reached at email@example.com.