Today I give up the best real estate in the city to a wannabe writer named Marty Walsh. Last year I made a bet with the good mayor of Boston, and he’s now collecting his prize. He was so slow at installing a permanent director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority that I bet he couldn’t find one before Charlie Baker was sworn in as governor. I lost. Walsh’s get: Guest columnist for a day. The mayor was just as tardy turning in this column, but I wasn’t about to make another bet with him.
An occasion to invest in our future
If you were in downtown Boston around lunch time on Monday, you might have seen something curious: 20 mayors, from cities large and small, walking down Washington Street together on their way to Faneuil Hall.
The group included everyone from New York’s Bill de Blasio and Baltimore’s Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, to Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans and Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis.
No, we weren’t hosting a support group for opponent cities of the New England Patriots — although Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle was a great sport at AmeriCorps’ “Service Bowl” on Saturday, helping us do some painting at St. Stephen’s Church in the South End.
The mayors were in town as my guests for a meeting of Cities of Opportunity, a task force created by Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento at the US Conference of Mayors last year.
He appointed Mayor de Blasio as chair and me as vice chair. It’s a platform for mayors to join forces in tackling the extreme wage and wealth gaps that are shrinking opportunities, fracturing communities, and slowing the economy all across the country.
As mayors, we are uniquely positioned to lead the charge to restore American opportunity. We are at the hubs of America’s regional economies, innovating daily with business, nonprofit, and government partners. And we are free from the obstructions that have hindered Congress in recent years.
Most of all, we know the impact of inequality, neighbor by neighbor. Boston has not been immune. Though our city’s unemployment rate is below 5 percent for the first time since the 2008 recession, our income distribution is among the most skewed in the country. Many people are working but struggling to get by.
As a lifelong resident of Dorchester, I’ve seen up close the difference that good wages and financial independence make to my neighbors. Shatira Mayes is one of them. She’s a mother of two in Dorchester who has worked full time as a nursing assistant and is now making a living caring for children. At minimum wage, she tells of a choice each month between paying her rent or other bills. She is one of many members of the caring professions who struggle to make ends meet and worry their children’s struggles will be even harder.
Shatira has signed up for financial coaching at our new Roxbury Center for Financial Empowerment, with the goal of going back to school to become a nurse. We’re helping her and thousands of other Bostonians build their dreams by using new tools of financial management and career development. It’s the kind of practical, proactive, people-centered policy that mayors specialize in.
At a Cities of Opportunity forum at University of Massachusetts Boston on Sunday, I spoke about this program, while other mayors shared their experience with minimum wage increases, earned income tax credit campaigns, and more.
We also agreed that in addition to empowering individuals, we have to change the structural dynamics that drive inequality. Those dynamics include transportation infrastructure, housing markets, educational opportunities, and labor laws that are tilted against the working poor and, increasingly, the middle class.
It’s not just unfair, it’s bad for business. We are talking about our workforce and our consumer base, after all — the lifeblood of our economy.
These factors weakening our long-term outlook are regional and national. So as mayors, we have to bring our message to state and federal partners. Already, we have lobbied Congress for investments in prekindergarten; broadband Internet; and senior and affordable housing. We focused this week on transportation.
America’s infrastructure is aging and increasingly unreliable. The White House reported last year that 65 percent of America’s roads are rated in less than good condition; 25 percent of our bridges need repair or replacement; and 45 percent of Americans lack public transit access.
But you don’t need statistics to convince the drivers and train riders of Greater Boston that we’ve reached a crisis point.
As I’ve said before, it’s time for the state to make a bold investment in the MBTA. Public transit is not just about moving trains, it’s about upward mobility — getting people access to the schools and jobs that can change their lives.
I talked to my fellow mayors about Boston’s experiences this winter. And they shared their own horror stories. It seems every mayor has a bridge nightmare — none worse than Mayor Hodges of Minneapolis, who recalled the collapse of the Interstate 35 over the Mississippi River that killed 13 people in 2007. Meanwhile, as we spoke, the Long Island Bridge was being detonated a few miles to our south.
If, as some authorities estimate, every dollar spent on infrastructure creates two dollars of economic activity, what we’re seeing now is the inverse: the economic drag of disinvestment. When roads crumble and rail service stalls, people can’t get to their jobs. They can’t keep their companies productive and often can’t get paid. They have less money to spend and our economy takes hit after hit.
And so that’s why we marched to Faneuil Hall on Monday. We stood together to call on Congress to reauthorize surface transportation funding at a level adequate to begin fixing the infrastructure that Boston and America’s economic progress depends on.
We need partners at the state and federal level with the wisdom and confidence to invest in America’s future. But as cities, we’re not waiting for help. We are innovating, we are forging creative partnerships, we are growing opportunity wherever and however we can. We are determined to make America’s economy work for the people who make it work.
I call on everyone – at every level of government, in every business and neighborhood — who still believes in the American Dream, to join us.
Martin J. Walsh is the 54th mayor of Boston. Follow him on Twitter @marty_walsh.