There are some six million Hispanic students enrolled in elementary schools across the US. (Photo by Lloyd Wolf for the US Census Bureau)

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Socio-economic changes may compel
US mayors to consider power sharing

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

29 January 2010: Several research centers in the United States marked the beginning of the new decade with the release of demographic and economic data. Each data set provides a specific perspective of socioeconomic change and is compelling in its own right. Viewed together, however, they indicate a convergence of powerful trends with potentially momentous consequences for US cities, mayors, and government structures.

| Trends | Consequences | Local government response |

The US Conference of Mayors annual report on hunger and homelessness found that, in the past year, US urban areas saw the steepest increase in the demand for hunger assistance since 1991 and an increase in family homelessness. More broadly, the report illustrates the sharp social and economic divisions in America. The rise in hunger and homelessness came despite a rise in the wealth-creating capacity of cities. The new decade began with US cities generating 87 per cent of the nation’s wealth, a historic high. The impressive wealth, however, is not distributed evenly across racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic lines.

Other research likewise points to increasing economic inequity and social polarization.

According the US Census Bureau’s International Data Base, the United States is really the only developed country in the world that is experiencing population growth. International immigration and births to recent immigrants account for about 80 per cent of that growth. The fastest growing segment of the US population, the Latino population, is expected to account for around 20 per cent of the nation’s total population by 2020. However, close to 50 per cent of Latinos will not have a high school diploma, and up to 80 per cent will not speak English well.

The US labor market continues to trend towards greater inequity. College degrees will be required for about half of the new jobs generated by the US economy over the next 15 years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. US Census data show that workers 18 and over with a bachelor’s degree earn nearly twice the annual wage of those with a high school diploma. About 31 per cent of the white population has a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with fewer than 18 per cent of African-Americans and 12 per cent of Latinos.

Perhaps the most startling trend is the rise in illiteracy in the United States. The National Adult Literacy Survey found that more than 20 per cent of US adults read at a level far below that needed to earn a living wage. An estimated 40 million Americans are functionally illiterate, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, up from 32 million in 1974. Half the people with the lowest literacy skills live in poverty, and 70 per cent are unemployed.

None of these demographic and economic changes is new to the United States. The US has always absorbed immigrants, most of whom are poor and have limited English language skills. Historically, the US has experienced sharp race and class divisions: the US had no sizable middle class until the post-World War II economic boom, and major civil rights legislation outlawing racial discrimination was passed only in the late-1960s. For most of the past century, however, an industrial and manufacturing labor market employed workers with lower skills and educational attainment, mitigating to some extent societal divisions.

Today, few countervailing forces are apparent to balance trends towards greater inequity in wages and wealth and the resulting marginalization of portions of the population. Success in American society – all of society, not just the labor market – is directly related to one’s ability to participate in social institutions. Negotiating complex medical, legal, retirement, and other bureaucratic systems requires a higher level of sophistication than ever. At minimum, a person must be able to read and write adequately. 

If unchecked, the convergence of negative trends will mean that fewer citizens will be capable of managing their individual health and security. The gap between those who enjoy a comfortable standard of living and those who fall beneath the poverty line will grow. The American middle class will shrink.

Clearly, an approach involving all levels of society will be necessary to reverse the trends.

Local government response
During the press conference announcing the US Conference of Mayors’ findings on hunger and homelessness, Sacramento, California Mayor Kevin Johnson noted that “Cities are on the front line where these effects are felt first.”

Indeed, US cities contain the highest proportions of the nation’s immigrants, poor, unemployed, and unemployable.

Cities may be the front line, but they are only part of a much larger battlefield, which encompasses the entire nation. 

Urban mayors’ responses to the challenges are noble, from building affordable housing to creating green jobs to taking control of failing schools to lowering the tax burden in their cities. The persistence of underperforming public schools, entrenched poverty, and illiteracy in cities is evidence that mayoral leadership is not enough. Mayors affect what they can control, and, clearly, local control is inadequate. 

The sheer complexity of the trends, the uncertainty they embody, and their growing pace and magnitude argue for a reassessment of the way public services are delivered at the local level.

Reversing the trends now converging on America will require multi-level interventions from the neighborhood level to the federal level. It’s difficult to envision how multi-level interventions can succeed within the current system of fragmented local governments. Political fragmentation slows responses and drains resources.

US mayors have been innovators in many areas, but power sharing is not one of them. Few urban mayors in the United States appear willing to meaningfully empower their citizens at the neighborhood level or cede some of the control of their cities to regional/federated forms of governance. Until city mayors decide to share or relinquish some of their power, the forces propelling inequities within American society are likely to continue unabated.

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