‘Boston jobs for Boston residents!” is a perennial rallying cry, and Boston city councilors have — yet again — jumped into the fray. This time, councilors want to impose tough new residency requirements on those who would be cops or firefighters, not allowing them to be considered unless they have lived in the city for at least three years. (Right now the rule is just one year.) Politicians love this stuff; it’s red meat for constituents who think City Hall is Santa Claus and want the goodies for themselves. That’s why when Councilor Michael Flaherty came up with the idea, seven others immediately signed on. Me too! Me too!
But what is a feel-good proposal for some comes with little benefit and genuine cost. Taxpayers and those who expect a top-notch public safety force are cheated. Moreover, Boston is diminished, appearing a provincial, inward-turning burg that can never quite get used to the notion that it should be the region’s core rather than just another political jurisdiction fighting over scraps.
If Flaherty’s legislation passes, which is likely, it’ll become part of a web of residency regulations that over the years have tried, with varying success, to limit city jobs to city residents. There are a variety of rationales for the rules. Some worry about the flight from the city of middle-class families with kids. Others simply view them as a jobs program. And then there are those who argue residency requirements make for more dedicated workers and, perhaps, even a more diverse workforce.
None of those arguments hold much water. Yes, compelling workers to live in Boston might keep in a few who otherwise would live elsewhere. But if city pols really care about Boston’s residential character, they should address the real reasons families move out: the suburbs offer superior schools and cheaper housing. Similarly, if the councilors care about jobs, they should focus on the reasons people are unemployed or underemployed. A strong economy helps, of course, but the basic problem many city residents face is that they don’t have the skills employers seek. Again, that’s an issue with the schools.
It’s hard as well to give much credence to the notion that city residency translates to a more devoted and committed workforce. Despite the city’s existing residency requirements, most workers are exempt (usually due to union agreements) with no evident sign that those living elsewhere are less effective in their jobs. And residency rules make for a convoluted path to diversity. A better approach is to directly seek candidates who are, say, women, fluent in Haitian Creole, and so on.
And then there are the downsides. By trying to give city residents a legal edge over those from elsewhere, Flaherty’s legislation is in effect saying that those city residents couldn’t get the job on merit alone — that the outsiders have more talent and skills. I’ll grant that there may be some city jobs where we don’t necessarily hire the best person for the job (the position of city councilor comes to mind . . .), but certainly that shouldn’t be the case for public safety positions. Boston taxpayers have a right to expect that their money is being spent to hire the finest available.
Boston often struggles with its place in the world, worrying that it’s just a small town even as it seeks to be a significant regional — and even national — economic, cultural, and intellectual force. Harvard University would be a no-account backwater if it insisted on hiring only professors who come from Cambridge. So too, embracing Boston’s potential as a world-class city means having a world-class workforce, no matter where they’re from, no matter where they live.Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.