As he prepares to leave office after 20 years, Mayor Thomas Menino cites income inequality as the city’s nagging, unresolved issue. As Mayor-elect Martin Walsh prepares to take office, he pledges to focus relentlessly “on providing opportunity, support, and upward mobility for the working families of Boston.’’
But that will be just so much palaver absent a practical strategy to improve lives in a city where the median household income is about $49,000 — and only half as much in many struggling neighborhoods.
A first and inexpensive step for Walsh might be helping Bostonians improve their routines. Both well-off and poor families follow behavioral patterns. If they are anything like their national counterparts, wealthier Bostonians attend back-to-school events, place strict limits on their children’s television time, rarely buy lottery tickets, and control their weight by avoiding junk food. The poor are often found at the other end of the spectrum.
A little finger-wagging from the new mayor on those subjects wouldn’t be such a bad thing. For example, the next time Boston parents receive a robo call about a weather-related school cancellation, it should include a reminder from the mayor or school superintendent to limit kids’ exposure to social media, TV, and cellphone use to, say, 90 minutes a day. Lots of studies suggest that children’s grades fall as their use of social media increases. Tell it straight to the city’s struggling families: It takes a lot of money to mimic the spending habits of the well-to-do, but little, if any, to adopt the habits of economically successful families.
High-quality education is and will remain the greatest equalizer. Had Menino managed to lengthen the school day significantly 20 years ago — and to have schools guided by top-notch principals with the power to pick their teachers — Boston would be much further along the road to income equality today. It would be a great shame if Walsh makes only similarly incremental educational progress. And God forbid if recalcitrant teachers’ union officials jerk him backwards.
But what can Walsh offer today’s adults? Dozens of them — including several in the construction trades — attended a recent economic-development forum with members of the Walsh transition team. Speakers demanded greater compliance with a city policy designed to increase employment for Boston residents, minorities, and women on city-funded construction projects. One gentleman, however, took the microphone and pointed out a basic flaw in a policy that calls for workers of color to perform at least 25 percent of the total hours in each trade: The city’s project labor agreements often require contractors to hire workers through union halls, where few minority tradesmen are found.
Removing the barriers that effectively exclude non-union construction workers — many minorities among them — and encouraging open-shop contractors to bid on city-owned construction projects would be a swift way to address income inequality in Boston. But Walsh, who depended heavily on organized labor to get elected, would need nerves of steel to get behind such an effort.
The poorest of the poor in Boston are found in public housing projects, where more than 5,000 district-school students live almost exclusively in female-headed households. This is ground zero for income inequality. But even here, there are ways to improve a family’s economic prospects: Identify noncustodial fathers and put them to work.
Absent an effective federal work requirement on noncustodial parents, the Walsh administration could improve the prospects of children in public housing by providing their fathers with job training that leads, at least in some cases, to entry-level city jobs as they come open. That would generate child support and employ men who might otherwise come to ruin on the city’s streets. Menino wasn’t afraid to put city money directly into public housing when state and federal funds dried up. Walsh could take the same approach on the jobs front.
Menino was a big booster of neighborhood commercial districts. He didn’t distinguish between the types of small businesses the city aided. Some of the most promising small companies, however, are owned by foreign-born residents, who make up about a quarter of the city’s population. In some cities, officials are helping these newcomers expand into the export market for cosmetics, crafts, and other products. It needs to happen here. The knowledge these entrepreneurs have of foreign languages, cultures, and tastes offers real potential to narrow income inequality in their adopted city.
In his victory speech in November, Walsh said he wants to usher in a “community of shared prosperity.’’ It’s a nice thought. But it will be an idle one, too, absent a concrete agenda.Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org