Rising Inequity and Local Solutions

In this 2014 file photo, people walk on the SUNY campus of the University at Albany, in Albany, N.Y.

In this 2014 file photo, people walk on the SUNY campus of the University at Albany, in Albany, N.Y. AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

COMMENTARY | With programs to provide free college tuition for middle-class students to training workers for climate change-related jobs, state and local governments are looking to reduce inequality.

Inequality in America has climbed steadily since the Nixon administration. Americans of different races, ethnicities, educational attainment, and incomes experience sharply different outcomes in the job market, health status, and the opportunities they can shape for their children.

This is a familiar, if lamentable, story, and one very likely to worsen in the short term as wages continue to stagnate, recent changes in tax policy reward capital over labor, and millions more Americans slip out of health care coverage. But states and cities are coming up with strategies to reduce social inequities in their own backyard, without having to involve the federal government at all.

At the National Academy of Public Administration Social Equity Leadership conference, held at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs in June, we found some surprisingly robust and promising practices ripe for application all over the United States. Here are just three of the most impressive practices that caught our attention:

  • Seeing opportunity in climate change for workforce development. At one level, climate change, in particular rising ocean levels and more frequent, dramatic storms, constitute an existential threat to coastal cities. But, as New York City Deputy Mayor J. Phillip Thompson observed, climate change is also going to be a consistent generator of jobs over the next century. Many of these jobs will be in construction and retrofitting, providing solid middle-income opportunities for less educated workers, as well as somewhat higher salaries for engineers trained in resilience technologies. To offer one example of an emerging job title, there is a new cadre of building managers who manage complex energy balancing systems in their buildings. New York City has teamed with NGOs, community colleges and unions to create the workforce that will not only, literally, stem the tides, but create a new, more sustainable and accessible city in the process.
  • Free college for the middle class. New York State and Tennessee have recently launched successful, “last-dollar” programs to send the sons and daughters of the middle class to college with tuition entirely subsidized by the state. Jim Malatras, president of the Rockefeller Institute at SUNY Albany, explained how Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program significantly addresses inequities in higher education by subsidizing middle income groups who earn too much to qualify for Pell grants or the state’s Tuition Assistance Program, (TAP) but lack the family resources necessary to pay undiscounted tuitions outright. The program has proven enormously popular and by next year will provide a path for free tuition at a state-supported institution for every New Yorker with a family income of $125,000 or less.
  • Measuring what you care about. This nostrum of public management – what’s measured is what matters – has been difficult to apply to equity issues, given the wide range of factors involved in considerations of equity and the interactions among multiple factors, such as housing, education, and contact with the criminal justice system. The CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance’s (ISLG) Social Equity Indicators project seeks to fill the void by working directly with local officials to create robust equity indices specific to their localities. In addition to ISLG’s Victoria Lawson, we heard from public officials in Pittsburgh, Tulsa, St. Louis and Dallas who are using Equality Indicators to address both individual problems and the intersections of inequality along many dimensions. Said one, “Even if the numbers are not where you want them to be, when you have the data, you can begin to make change.”

A consistent theme across these three areas and, indeed, throughout the entire two days of the conference, is the importance of multiple constituencies and robust, adaptable networks to any sustainable attempt to address social inequities. Government should always be a partner and a catalyst, but critical capacity and competency may also come from the nonprofit sector, the university community, labor organizations, or the private sector.

Bruce Katz, in a keynote address leading the conference, observed that the ability of cross-jurisdictional coalitions to aggregate and deploy financial assets will be the sine qua non of successful cities not only in the future, but right now. He points to the successes of cities such as Indianapolis and Pittsburgh in replacing a dead or dying manufacturing base with new initiatives, unfolding over decades, in health care, informatics, conference services and other areas. Their success makes manifest the critical transitions in skillset and mindsets from government to governance: collaborative, multi-sectoral, results-oriented, and deeply engaged with citizens at every level and every stage of the process of recrafting their cities for a more robust, equitable future.

NAPA has cared deeply about equity since its inception and established its Standing Panel on Social Equity nearly two decades ago. “Governance” has been in the Academy’s charter from the beginning as well, and today merits special attention as we assist governments and civic partners working closest to the people we serve to achieve the vital goals of social equity.

The national conversation can sometimes be highly politicized and repetitive, rendering real progress elusive. But there is more than enough hope in our states and localities to provide the solid evidence of success on the ground, working across the aisle as well as across sectors, to make us optimistic about our prospects. As concluding keynoter and immigrant leader Cristina Jimenez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream, observed, “I know, because all of us truly believe in the power of a multiracial, inclusive democracy, where people like me cannot just survive, but thrive, [that] we will get there. I am certain.” Inspired by the demonstrated successes we saw at the Social Equity Leadership Conference last month, this is a certainty we share.

Teresa Gerton is President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. David Birdsell is Dean of the Austin W. Marxe School of Public and International Affairs.

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