Longtime Mayor Tom Menino’s decision not to run for reelection is a milestone in Boston’s political history. Yet his two decades in office need not be judged by anecdotes and fond memories alone, because his tenure has been long enough to yield some meaningful data. In his case, the numbers look quite positive.
In 1993, Boston was still in the throes of the de-industrialization that had traumatized all of America’s older, colder cities. In that year, there were 485,000 employees of private businesses in Suffolk County — of which Boston forms by far the largest part — who collectively earned $26.6 billion in current dollars. In 2010, Suffolk had 556,000 employees, who earned $42 billion. Measured by real earnings, Boston’s economy has grown by 58 percent over Menino’s tenure; on average, each worker in Suffolk County now earns 38 percent more.
Economists, including myself, are quick to emphasize that local leaders have only limited ability to shape local economies. Where a mayor has far more influence is over city spending. While Menino was an outspoken liberal on environmental issues, same-sex marriage, and gun control, he was fiscally conservative; general city expenditures have risen little over his tenure. The mayor also plays a direct role in crime, education, and development policy. At the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston, which I direct, we track data on all these issues. (I should note that Menino’s administration has been helpful to our institute in several ways, from collaborating on events to hosting our interns at City Hall.)
In 1993, there were 10,843 violent crimes in the city and 98 murders. Four years later, the number of violent crimes had fallen by 27 percent and there were only 43 murders; the city has averaged 56 murders annually since then. The decline in crime has outpaced the national average, and the numbers tell only part of the story. Just as importantly, Menino’s Boston is safe because of smart, socially savvy policing rather than strong-arm tactics.
By most accounts, improving the public school system has proved a bigger challenge for a mayor who, rightly, has seen schools as the best means to create economic opportunity. Still, the high-school dropout rate fell over his tenure, from about 8.7 percent in 1993, to 6 percent today. We only have MCAS data since 1998, but the progress in those scores has been dramatic. In 1998, only 13 percent of Boston 10th-graders scored as proficient or advanced in math. By 2012 that figure had soared to 65 percent, and the improvement in English and science were similarly impressive.
Rising test scores and a safer city have translated into substantial increases in home values. Rising prices also mean less affordability — a problem that only abundant construction can solve. Menino has helped there as well. While Boston still builds less than it could or should, the past 20 years have seen a remarkable increase in housing and commercial construction. In the housing bust of the early 1990s, only 1,000 new housing units were permitted in Boston between 1990 and 1995. In the boom years of the last decade, the city was permitting more than 1,000 units annually. Even in 2011, the city permitted 785 units.
Boston’s successes over the last 20 years owe more to city residents’ skills than to City Hall. Still, the available data indicate that Boston has been blessed with an extraordinarily capable leader, who has helped make the city a safer, better educated, and more prosperous place.
Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.