With the new Boston mayor and city council ready to look at deep-seated urban problems anew, it’s time to start talking about what Boston can do to address one of the greatest challenges of our time: income inequality.
While the city has come out of the Great Recession in much better shape that other big metropolises, not all of our residents have been able to share in the prosperity they help create. Of course, this economic malaise is not exclusive to Boston. People across the country are feeling that our economy is not heading in the right direction. And for the first time in recent memory there is a wave of progressive change sweeping important cities that are electing new mayors who promise to address economy inequality. Bill de Blasio in New York, Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh all have been elected on a platform that puts a premium on giving people access to economic opportunity.
This new emphasis on addressing the income gap shouldn’t be a surprise. In the last decade we have seen a steady increase in low-wage, part time work with no sick time or health insurance. Here in Boston, according to a new report by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, the wealthiest 20 percent of our residents earn 10 times the poorest 20 percent while the cost of living has increased by 68 percent since 1990, making Boston the 10th most expensive city in the US. With one in six Bostonians living in poverty, it’s clear that we need vigorous policies at the national and local level to promote an economy that is both fair and competitive.
There are hundreds of labor, community and faith groups that work every day to tackle the disparities between the rich and the rest of us. But policies that will benefit working families — and families that wish they had work — won’t just come just from inside City Hall. Many groups worked hard to make sure extraordinary candidates like Mayor Martin Walsh won on Election Day. And while we are elated by their victories, we need to keep organizing to make sure our voices are heard.
While government cannot fix everything, one of the best ways to reduce inequality is to support good jobs. This means supporting airport and low-wage service workers who are fighting to join a union. It also means enforcing prevailing and living wage laws throughout the city. Bostonians need affordable housing that is actually affordable for working families and schools that are not crammed with too many children in each classroom.
Our local government must be willing to promote prosperity for the people of Boston. We need reform to make subsidized companies more accountable for the quantity and quality of the jobs created otherwise the millions of taxpayer dollars spent every year will benefit very few in our city.
For example: State Street Bank has received $11.5 million from the Redevelopment Authority to build a new office building in South Boston even as it launched a wave of hundreds of layoffs, was fined for misleading investors about subprime mortgages and stood accused of overcharging pension funds for foreign currency deals it handled on their behalf. It is unacceptable for corporate giants to benefit from taxpayers’ dollars for their own gain while slashing the good jobs they are supposed to be creating.
Most people agree that Boston’s public resources should be directed toward expanding opportunity, growing the economy, strengthening communities and empowering families. Walsh and the city council have an opportunity to make our city’s economic development programs more transparent and accountable to the communities that pay for them. Ensuring that businesses receiving government tax breaks, subsidies or contracts create good jobs is one of the tools that City Hall can use to move more of Boston’s working people into the middle class.
With a government that is ready to listen as well as act and a community that is ready to respond and advocate, we can make this city a place where all residents can thrive.