Newton’s mayor, Setti Warren, is raising his family in a house he could never afford to buy, and that gnawing fact has helped set the agenda for his second term in office.
While Warren, 45, was growing up in Newton, his father worked as an operative for then-Governor Michael Dukakis. Joe Warren, a Korean War veteran, had bought the family home with the help of the GI Bill, and Setti inherited it when his father — who became a fixture in the Dukakis administration and was also a longtime administrator at Northeastern University — died a few years ago.
Now Warren is trying to figure out what cities like his can do to address the issues of income inequality and economic mobility. As part of a US Conference of Mayors meeting in Boston and HUBweek, Warren convened two panel discussions last week about the lack of such mobility and what local governments can do to combat it.
In his case, two years ago he commissioned a study by Northeastern economist Barry Bluestone on the demographics of his city. Despite having lived in Newton nearly all his life, Warren described himself as startled by some of Bluestone’s findings.
“He found that 6 percent of the population lives under the poverty line,” Warren said. “In some schools in our district, 30 to 40 percent of students get reduced price lunch.”
Any large city would consider both those numbers almost negligible. But in Newton, poverty resides deep in the shadows. There are no poor neighborhoods, but it turns out there are pockets of poor people.
“I was very lucky,” Warren said. “So what I wanted to make sure I concentrated on was how to make sure that the people who live in Newton [also] . . . live the story” of the community’s success.
Put another way: “How do I make sure that other families like mine get into Newton?”
Warren doesn’t claim to have figured out all the answers to those sweeping questions. But he has put together a plan that combines ideas about addressing achievement in schools, stimulating job growth, and helping residents secure their retirement. After a close look at research, he became convinced that the biggest barrier to equality was education. Thus, he has worked to strengthen summer school programs and to create internships for low-income high school students, whose prospects improve, according to research, when they are introduced early to the workplace.
Warren said he has found willing partners among Newton’s nonprofits and in the business community. For example, he has commitments from two dozen businesses to hiring high school students as interns.
“When cities create collaborations within their cities and have long-term goals, there’s research that shows all the basic indicators are better,” Warren said. He says the achievement gap between white and Asian students and their African-American and Latino peers is narrowing, though a couple of years is too short a time frame to draw real conclusions.
Issues of class — which are what Warren is really hoping to address — have traditionally been considered largely beyond the reach of local government, driven by forces mayors and their allies simply aren’t in a position to influence much.
Warren begs to differ. It’s practically an article of faith among him and his peers that mayors can actually make things happen, albeit on a limited scale, while other levels of government are gridlocked.
“I think mayors and municipal leaders are closest to the people,” Warren said. “We are in the neighborhoods talking to our constituents . . . We can try things. That does not abdicate the responsibility of state and federal government from their responsibility.”
The growing divide between rich and poor is an issue government, in general, is reluctant to take on. It’s too complicated and too politically loaded. But government shouldn’t ignore it. A place like Newton just might be a great lab to study innovation.