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The Boston Globe

Opinion

opinion | Don Gillis and Andy Sum

Poverty must be top priority for mayoral candidates

Mayor Menino participated yearly in the Boston Homeless Census; here he speaks with “Laurie” on the streets near Government Center in 2007.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/file

Mayor Menino participated yearly in the Boston Homeless Census; here he speaks with “Laurie” on the streets near Government Center in 2007.

THE BOSTON MAYORAL HOPEFULS are busy attending forums on the issues that will face them if elected. Some have exhorted the candidates to direct attention to Boston’s supposed major problems — the lack of late-night commerce and access to liquor licenses, a limited innovation economy, and too stringent parking and housing space requirements. But many city residents disagree that those are the biggest problems facing the city. For them, the most pressing issues are how to lift the economic well-being of our neighborhoods and move families out of poverty.

A recent analysis by Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies found that poverty in Boston has grown over the past two decades, while the incomes of the richest Bostonians have skyrocketed. From 2009 to 2011, the top 10 percent of Boston families obtained as much income before taxes as the bottom 75 percent of Boston families combined. Families at the 95th percentile earned nearly 40 times the income of those at the 5th percentile. In order for Boston to work, the next mayor must offer a road map out of the poverty and inequality maze.

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Boston’s economy is currently prospering. Policies in place include linkage, a fee paid for downtown development, which is widely credited with providing jobs and housing for some of Boston’s poorer citizens. Although the construction of luxury housing is on the rise, the percentage of Boston residents working on projects subject to the Boston Residents Jobs Policy has averaged only about 30 percent, when 50 percent is required by the ordinance. Shouldn’t the goal be to put even more Boston workers on these projects than currently required?

While we have seen impressive results in some neighborhoods being rebuilt and many positive changes in Boston over the past 20 years, including the enriching ethnic, racial, and economic diversity of the growing city, some neighborhoods are teetering on the brink from foreclosures, crime, and a lack of investment. The next mayor must work with our poorer communities to identify how to collectively increase the social and economic capital of the city’s families and raise our neighbors out of poverty.

Many large nonprofit institutions, including hospitals and universities, are not playing a large enough role in reducing joblessness and poverty. Isn’t it time to hold them accountable to help meet these challenges?

The Boston Public Schools can serve as an important linchpin in providing the education and skills for future economic opportunity for their graduates. The city still has a way to go to achieve the high standards necessary for our students’ academic performance and success in college and the workforce. But where are the corporate partners of the 1980s and 1990s that made significant investments and developed partnerships with our schools?

After 30 years with the most progressive linkage program in the nation, and strong growth downtown and in the Seaport, fueled by tax breaks, now is the time for developers to reach deeper to promote greater opportunity and equality in Boston for jobs, housing, and training. It could have a big impact on the lives of thousands of poor families.

Our next mayor must lead a citywide conversation about economic justice and how to implement policies that will increase the income and opportunities for all Bostonians. If effectively implemented, these policies could lift families and neighborhoods. To do less will maintain the status quo, or even worse, the gap will widen.

Yes, Boston’s prosperity depends on openness to new possibilities, but this prosperity must be shared. Before we worry too much about access to late-night bars, might we for a moment focus upon reducing joblessness and poverty? The candidates for mayor who do not address these issues do not deserve to lead the next stage of the city’s history.

Don Gillis is the former executive director of the Economic Development Industrial Corporation of Boston. Andy Sum is director of Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.
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