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The U.S. Conference of Mayors President on how he and his peers are helping residents confront the realities of today's economy—and what comes next.
Austin, Tex.— Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Steve Benjamin, fresh off his inauguration in May as U.S. Conference of Mayors’ president, opened their annual summer meeting stating:
“I am a mayor because I believe that all people want the opportunity to earn a good living and they are relying on us to do that. I recognize that you cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots at all. Poverty is real, still. Income volatility is real. The future of work depends on us. The dignity of work depends on us. I am a mayor because we have to embrace that responsibility.”
Among the many issues mayors must take responsibility for—from filling potholes to public safety—perhaps none is as front-and-center as the economic vibrancy of their cities and the fiscal well-being of citizens. So perhaps it is not surprising during the innovation celebration that is Austin’s South by Southwest earlier this month, mayors seemed particularly preoccupied with what the ongoing march of rapid technological change means for residents’ economic well-being and livelihoods.
Benjamin told Route Fifty his major focus throughout the event was attempting to capture “ways in which policymakers can try and keep up with the advent of technology.”
“I think it’s really beyond smart cities or even mayoral policy,” he said. “The only constant is that … I hate to use a double negative, but you can’t do nothing.”
Benjamin pointed to a number of opportunities that he and his colleagues see, ranging from spurring entrepreneurism among those over 50 to the tried-and-true idea of infrastructure investment.
“How do you create ways where everybody ... can feel in their pockets that they have an opportunity to participate in this rapidly changing world?” he asked. “I think the answer, quite frankly, is all of the above. It takes lifelong learning. It takes constantly iterating ideas. Some will succeed, some will fail.”
Check out our full video interview with Mayor Steve Benjamin above, as well as our key takeaways below:
Economic Disruption Will Not Be Equitable
“You’ve got to continue to engage your citizens in lifelong learning, making sure that they adjust for a rapidly changing world.”
“That means … everyone understanding the importance of some type of digital inclusion strategy, making sure we’re preparing our citizens for what we know will be incredibly disruptive —and it will not be demographically equal. We’ll see African Americans and people of color, their futures disrupted more so than maybe Asian Americans and white Americans. But we’ll all see significant disruptions.”
“So how do we make sure that we are prepared for jobs in the new economy, whatever they might be?”
What Being President of USCM Means To Him and His City
“The opportunity to work with my colleagues and serve my colleagues in this organization. And being quite frank, and using it as a platform to elevate this city that I know and love… that’s really giving me everything I have. Not just professional or political opportunities, but giving me, my wife and our children and an opportunity to live up to my God-given potential. It has been life changing.
“This organization has for over 80 years served as the heart and soul of America. Men and women from across the political spectrum have worked to serve the cities that they love, as well. Now I get a chance to do it and focus on the three things that I believe are important to every single mayor and every citizen: infrastructure, innovation and inclusion. We’re doing it as a bipartisan strategy against a backdrop of a country that [has] not prioritized bipartisanship right now.
“It’s been wonderful. It’s been life changing. It’s been one of the things in my life I’m most proud of and thankful for.”
Why Greater Local Infrastructure Investment Is Part of the Solution
“I think it does mean that we’re going to have to make sure that as local communities, we start investing more heavily in infrastructure.”
“Recognizing we have a $4 trillion infrastructure deficit in America, every billion dollars you spend creates 15,000 jobs. There are ways we can make investments in infrastructure and green infrastructure. These are blue collar and white collar jobs that can stimulate the economy in ways that nothing else can.”