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Cities Warn That Rising Inequity Will Threaten Long-Term Social Stability of Urban Economies

Charlotte, North Carolina

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A new NLC report says that cities must “act deliberately for growth … to be sustainable” and provided recommendations to improve the economic mobility of residents and the overall economic health of their cities.

CHARLOTTE – A new report released by the National League of Cities warns that increasing disparities in wealth threatens long-term social stability, creating greater gaps between the rich and poor, as well as along racial lines. The report’s release coincided with a “roadmap” of recommendations for local leaders to tackle growing income and racial inequality in America.

During a press event Wednesday that coincided with the opening of the organization’s annual City Summit, NLC President Matt Zone, a Cleveland, Ohio city council member, expressed concern regarding the “drastic disparities that are facing our cities and our nation as a whole.”

Zone referenced a Pew Research Center study, explaining that the increasing wealth gap in America is not only increasing, but, when viewed “through a racial lens, even starker”: low income white families have “four times as much wealth as black families and three times as much as Hispanic families.”

The NLC report, entitled “The Future of Equity in Cities,” points to increasing segregation despite increasing diversity in cities.

“If this trend is brought to its ultimate conclusion, cities will become increasingly segregated, with entirely different economies found within a few miles of each other,” the report states. “This will have profound implications for economic access, as opportunities are increasingly only available in the most expensive cities, which debt-burdened students or lower-income families will not be able to afford.”

Despite best practices and resurgent metropolitan economies, underlying economic and racial factors are creating systemic issues that will need to be addressed over the long term.

“While many cities feel the immediate positive outcomes from wealth flooding into metropolitan regions, they also feel the negative impact on community members of varying income levels, particularly those at the bottom,” Brooks Rainwater, senior executive and director at NLC’s Center for City Solutions said. “I think we’ve been seeing rising inequality in America for decades now, and it’s become more acute in the last few years.”

Rainwater believes the growing inequity is part of greater global trend. He attributes it to a “barbell effect that we’re seeing in the economic sphere, where we are seeing growth at the top, growth at the bottom, but the middle is falling away.”

Despite these warnings, the “Future of Equity in Cities” report was not one-dimensional doom and gloom. Bright spots included the fact that 80 percent of transportation plans consider equity in their long-term plans. Police departments were also increasingly becoming diverse, more representative of their citizens and adopting the tenets community policing. The report also points to technology as an opportunity to close the equity gap, though it pointed out that technology is not “inherently neutral” and that leaders must “actively ensure new technologies don’t reinforce inequity or bias.”

In coordination with the report on the future of equity, NLC released 33 recommendations for cities to serve as “a road map to help mayors, councilmembers and other municipal officials expand economic mobility and opportunity—to help more of their residents share in the American Dream.”

The recommendations are the result of a 22-member “Task Force on Economic Mobility and Opportunity” led by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Launched as a presidential initiative by outgoing president Zone, the task force’s report provided ideas of how to tackle many of the concerning issues raised in the Future of Equity report.

“All of the leaders around the task force table understand that as cities become more and more successful, regular people who stayed in cities and went through the good times and the other times have to have a fair shot and a fair shake at staying in them,” Reed said during the press event. “That is the basis of the recommendations that make up this report, and now it is incumbent upon each of us to go back home and execute them.”

The task force made recommendations for improvements regarding "equitable economic development, housing affordability, financial inclusion, and jobs, wages, and workforce development.”

“When you can create economic mobility for the poorest people in our community, you create wealth for the entire community,” Zone said. “The most dynamic cities not only in America but in the world are communities that are intentional about making sure we build truly just and equitable and mixed income communities that lift up all populations.”

“It’s important as leaders we value these issues,” Gary, Indiana Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, second vice president of NLC, told Route Fifty. “You can value it because it’s the right thing to do, or you can value it because it creates peace in your city, but for whatever motivates you, you really do have to value the importance of creating a level playing field for all of our residents.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Director of Programs for Government Executive's Route FIfty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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