2022 Menino Survey: Economic Opportunity, Poverty & Well-Being

America’s Mayors See Soaring Housing Costs as Top Economic Challenge But Feel They Have Little Control, According to Survey of US Mayors

Mayors Feel More Accountable for Public Health Issues since 2018, Especially Gun Violence and Mental Health

Findings Among Those from the Boston University Initiative on Cities’ Menino Survey of Mayors

2022 Menino Survey: Economic Opportunity, Poverty & Well-Being

Over the past year, American cities have been at the forefront of a wide array of economic and social challenges that affect the overall well-being of residents. Mayors recognize critical cost of living and health and safety challenges in their communities but vary widely in their perceived accountability of and control over such issues. These local leaders also worry about rates of poverty, though they differ along partisan lines on the root causes as well as the policies best suited to reducing it.

These are some of the findings from the latest Menino Survey of Mayors, the only nationally representative survey of America’s mayors conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. The full report, “Economic Opportunity, Poverty & Well-Being,” detailing mayors’ views on key economic and public safety challenges can be found here.

Soaring housing costs remain a national challenge with eight-in-ten mayors naming them one of the top two economic challenges for their city. Mayors’ concerns about housing dwarfed other issues: the next most prioritized economic challenges were the rising cost of living (44%) and poverty (37%). Mayors of cities with expensive and cheaper housing were equally concerned about housing costs in their communities. The salience of housing costs relative to rising cost of living is especially striking given the timing of the survey, which was fielded in summer 2022 during the peak of inflationary pressures.

A strong majority of mayors (70%) believe they are held accountable for housing costs in their city, but most (58%) feel they have little to no control over them. There is no other cost of living area – including home energy costs, inflation, and wage growth – where a majority of mayors think their constituents hold them accountable.

“Mayors are facing a variety of challenges – including rising cost of living, poverty, crime, and high housing costs – over which they have, at times, limited control,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, Menino Survey Co-Author and Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston University. “They are especially worried about the escalating price of housing and are pursuing local regulatory changes and funding streams in an effort to help their cash-strapped residents.”

Given their prominent concerns about housing, almost half of mayors cite some type of housing policy as the best thing their city can do to help residents facing the rising cost of living. These housing policies tended to fall into two buckets: increasing the housing supply (27% of mayors) and increasing affordable housing funding (21%).

Even when thinking about their most disadvantaged residents, mayors are preoccupied with the housing cost burden. When asked about how to allocate resources to address poverty specifically, most mayors prioritized housing supports, whether in the form of rental assistance (58% of mayors) or homeownership programs (56%). The next top answer – direct cash transfers to adults – was 24 percentage points less popular than these housing measures. In fact, most mayors (53%) do not believe that direct cash transfers should be a primary anti-poverty tool.

Mayors do, however, largely support race-targeted policy programs as part of their anti-poverty initiatives: a majority believe that some resources in their city should be reserved for minority-owned small businesses (83%) and homeownership programs for Black residents (61%). A majority (67%) also support undocumented immigrants having access to local public benefits programs.

“Recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic has proven to be difficult in much of the United States — poverty remains high in many communities,” said Maria Kozloski, Interim Senior Vice President of Equity and Economic Opportunity at The Rockefeller Foundation. “We are pleased to see that mayors across the political spectrum agree that supporting minority-owned businesses is a key anti-poverty measure and hope they continue to invest in the equitable economic growth of their cities.”

Beyond economic challenges, which have long been the concern of America’s mayors, wide ranging public health concerns are now seen as their responsibility. Significant majorities of mayors feel residents hold them accountable for addressing traffic crashes (82%), gun violence (81%), and Covid-19 (70%) in their communities. Slimmer majorities think they are held accountable for mental health (57%), hunger (57%), and substance abuse issues (51%).

Notable, however, is that mayors see themselves as being increasingly held accountable for many public health challenges, compared to when we asked a similar question in 2018. In particular, mayoral accountability for gun violence and resident mental health dramatically increased over the last four years, by at least 26 percentage points, suggesting growing concern about these issues among residents.

“We learned many lessons from the pandemic about health, safety, and well-being. One of the big takeaways for me – and for many other mayors based on the survey findings – is the importance of widening access to mental health services for our residents,” said Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve. “In tackling this crisis and creating healthier, more compassionate communities, we need to provide better resources, while also addressing stigmas. We need wraparound approaches that meet people where they are and help to build trust. Solving these problems requires partnerships, locally and nationally, and it’s why I chair a national task force on mental health and well-being. Without good mental health services, everything from the economy to public safety is at risk.”

Cities across the country continue to be devastated by gun violence and mass shootings, and several mayors lamented the political obstacles to reducing the availability of illegal guns in their community when discussing public health challenges. Overall, mayors strongly support additional gun control with three-quarters agreeing that civilians should be unable to acquire assault rifles under any circumstances.

Mirroring national partisan polarization, Democrats and Republicans were divided: 88% of Democratic mayors supported an assault rifle ban, compared with only 40% of Republican mayors. An even larger proportion of mayors (84%) believe that their police officers would strongly enforce an assault rifle ban if one were implemented. Intriguingly, Democrats (92%) were significantly more likely than Republicans (32%) to trust their police to enforce such a ban.

Other key findings:

  • Automated traffic enforcement technology was generally embraced by mayors as a useful tool for regulating unsafe drivers: 67% would use it to regulate speed, while 62% would use it to monitor red lights. Other uses, such as noise (31%) and stop signs (29%) are not as popular. Only a small minority of mayors (11%) see no use for automated traffic enforcement. Democratic mayors are somewhat more enthusiastic about automated enforcement, in general, than Republican mayors. The most often cited benefit of the technology was improving safety through deterrence. The most frequently cited downside was negative public opinion.
  • Mayors recognize racial disparities in local policing practices, but their perceptions have changed since 2020: 56% percent believe that Black people are treated worse by the police compared with white people; however, this is lower than in 2020 – during a period of prolonged, high-profile protests against police violence – when 68% of mayors felt similarly. Thirty-four percent of mayors believe that Black residents in their city do not trust the police, compared with 44% in 2020.
  • Mayors continue to believe that their police departments are attracting candidates well-suited to the job: 83% believe their police departments do a good job of attracting individuals well-suited to being police officers. A virtually identical 80% of mayors felt similarly in 2020.

The Menino Survey of Mayors, named after the late Mayor of Boston Thomas Menino and supported by The Rockefeller Foundation, is an annual project to understand the most pressing needs and policy priorities of America’s mayors from large and mid-size (over 75,000 residents) cities. In total, 118 mayors from 38 states were interviewed throughout the summer of 2022, providing a representative sample of mayors and cities nationally.

Additional findings from the 2022 Menino Survey – related to local climate action – were previously released in January and can be found here.

Read the Report


April 4, 2023: BU Today: US Mayors Cite Housing Costs as Most Pressing Economic Concern in New Survey by BU Researcher

April 4, 2023: American City & County: Report: Concern among mayors over housing costs dwarfs other issues

April 21, 2023: Yahoo Finance: Most mayors say housing is the biggest challenge in U.S. cities, survey finds