Walsh Targets Inequality, But What Can A Mayor Actually Do?

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New Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has made shrinking the income gap a central focus of his young administration. But can mayors really do much about the growing gap between rich and poor? (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
New Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has made shrinking the income gap a central focus of his young administration. But can mayors really do much about the growing gap between rich and poor? (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The corner of Washington and Avery streets, just a couple of blocks from Boston Common, was a foreboding place not so long ago: a seedy extension of the old Combat Zone.

Not anymore.

The new 15-story Millennium Place offers up luxury condominiums, a private screening room for residents and a customized social calendar called La Vie. Across the street, upscale furniture store Roche Bubois sells an $11,000 couch with a built-in iPad jack.

But just around the corner: a reminder that Boston's surging affluence is not shared by all.

The city's largest anti-poverty agency, Action for Boston Community Development, is a big, concrete box.

Hundreds of clients walk through its spare lobby every day. On the fourth floor, Tonya Wilkerson, an unemployed phlebotomist from Dorchester, applies for home heating assistance and bemoans a long stretch of joblessness.

"Since I lost my job," she says, sobbing, "it's like — I can't even — I fell so hard I can't even get up. I wasn't expecting it. I wasn't expecting to lose my job."

Income inequality in U.S. cities

This is Gilded Age Boston — a city of great wealth and great inequality.

Census data show that when it comes to the largest American cities — population 500,000 or more — Boston has the least equitable income distribution in the country.

Its knowledge-based economy, experts say, is driving an ever-sharper wedge between the haves and the have-nots.

New Mayor Marty Walsh, the son of an immigrant laborer, has made shrinking the income gap a central focus of his young administration. "We cannot tolerate a city," he said in his inaugural address last month, "divided by privilege and poverty."

He is not alone. The new mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, spoke of a "tale of two cities" during his fall campaign. And new Seattle Mayor Ed Murray set up an Income Inequality Advisory Committee before he even took office.

But as the Walsh administration settles in, a big question hangs over City Hall: Can mayors really do much about the growing gap between rich and poor?

Boston's New Affluence

The glimmer of Washington and Avery streets can only be understood in the context of a broader urban revival.

After decades of abandonment, America — and American business — have revalued cities, or at least those well-positioned for the Information Age.

"Cities offer really what the innovative economy needs," says Bruce Katz, a vice president at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and co-author of "The Metropolitan Revolution." "They offer proximity, they offer density, they offer opportunity for people to share ideas, to bump and mingle, to have this kind of synergistic effect."

Just last week, Vertex Pharmaceuticals formally unveiled its new $800 million headquarters in South Boston's Innovation District — a glassy tower of brightly colored chairs and well-fed employees.

The city's new wealth, says Harvard University economist Edward Glaeser, should not be a source of worry.

"I can't stress enough how important it is not to view the coexistence of wealth and poverty as something damning about Boston," says Glaeser, director of Harvard's Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. "The city should take pride that it has a thriving financial sector, that it has a thriving tech sector, that it has well-paid doctors."

Boston should also be proud, Glaeser says, that its economy and public transit system draw immigrants and other low-income people. The successful American city, he says, attracts the rich and poor.

But if inequality is, in some respects, a sign of health circa 2014, Glaeser says City Hall does have a responsibility to smooth out the differences between the haves and have-nots. And advocates for the poor put it more forcefully.

"Inequality is the defining issue of our time," says Tiziana Dearing, a professor at Boston College's Graduate School of Social Work and former director of the anti-poverty startup fund Boston Rising. "Full stop."

But the divide between rich and poor is rooted in big economic trends — the decline of manufacturing and the rise of the knowledge-based economy. And observers say there are limits on what mayors can do to close it.

"The ultimate sources of inequality aren't local," says Benjamin Barber, author of "If Mayors Ruled the World." "The ultimate sources of inequality are global. But they're constrained to try to deal with them with local assets...And that, of course, is extremely difficult."

It's especially hard given the limits on mayoral power.

New York's de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the rich to pay for expanded preschool and afterschool programs. But he can't do it without the support of a leery state legislature.

Mayor Walsh doesn't even have the power to levy an income tax under the Massachusetts Constitution.

Help from a dysfunctional Washington seems even less likely. But that dysfunction has left a leadership vacuum. And across the country, city officials — whatever their limitations — are increasingly confident they can fill it.

"We are in a time where cities are driving policy nationally," says Walsh's policy chief, Joyce Linehan, sitting in her new fifth-floor office in City Hall. "At a time when Congress can't really seem to get much done, cities are out here dealing with the day-to-day.

"It's a great time," she says, "to be in municipal government."

And there are some promising efforts at the local level.

Preschool A Centerpiece In Inequality Fight

It's a Tuesday morning at the Holland Elementary School, a bright collection of blue, yellow and red buildings in the high-poverty Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester.

A group of preschool students, dressed in blue pants and red shirts, is coming face-to-face with the number nine.

"Make a circle and a straight line down," they say in unison. "That's how we make our nine."

The Holland is struggling; the state is set to take over the school in the fall. But administrators regard the preschool program here, and across the city, as a bright spot.

Last year, a Harvard University study of 2,000 4- and 5-year-olds in the Boston Public Schools found bigger gains in math and vocabulary than in any other study of a large preschool program in the nation.

But it's a program of limited reach. The district has about 2,300 preschool — or K1 — slots. That's about half the number of K2 slots.

Walsh has made universal preschool — a slot for every child — the centerpiece of his fight against inequality. The idea is to boost brain development and, later, graduation rates and job prospects.

The research on the long-term impact of early education is mixed. Studies of the federal Head Start preschool program find gains fading by the third grade. But the most promising programs focus on quality.

In Boston, that means a rigorous curriculum, teachers with the same academic credentials as those in the upper grades and coaches for those teachers.

The Harvard study draws no definitive conclusions about which of these elements — if any — explain the Boston preschool program's apparent success. But district officials are determined to keep the same rigor if they expand.

Quality is expensive, though. Doubling the number of preschool slots would cost an estimated $32 million. That's a fraction of the school district's $1 billion budget, but real money for a city in a budget crunch.

Walsh says he's determined to find the money in his first term. But in the meantime, city officials are keeping an eye on some intriguing low-cost anti-poverty experiments.

And there are few as intriguing — or unconventional — as the Family Independence Initiative, or FII.

A Program's Promising Initial Results

The Family Independence Initiative helped Francia Peguero and her daughter, Giandra, move into a new apartment in Norwood. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Family Independence Initiative helped Francia Peguero and her daughter, Giandra, buy a house in Norwood. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A small group of women gather around a long table at FII-Boston's Jamaica Plain headquarters.

They're eating pizza and keeping tabs on their children. Michael, a 16-month-old in a blue-and-green striped one-piece, slaps playfully at the table as the women talk.

Lawanda Riggs, a single mother of three who pays her rent with a federal Section 8 voucher, worries that a new job — and the raise that came with it — will soon make her ineligible for the voucher.

"I make a decent salary, but I'm living check to check," she says.

It's called the "cliff effect" — success bringing sudden ineligibility for services and supports.

It's one of several problems FII is designed to address.

Maurice Lim Miller started the Family Independence Initiative as a research project in Oakland in 2001. He'd spent years in traditional social service programs but had seen little impact on intergenerational poverty.

Late one night then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, now the governor of California, called him with a sharp challenge. You're a "poverty pimp," he said. Come up with something different.

Miller rooted around for awhile. Eventually he fixed on the story of his mother, a Mexican immigrant who worked several jobs to support her family.

And he built a project on the immigrant model, convening small groups of low-income people to chart their own course. It's in five cities now: Oakland, Fresno, Calif., Detroit, New Orleans and Boston.

Groups set goals around homeownership, business development, weight loss — whatever they choose.

Participants track their own progress on laptop computers and share ideas over social media. And FII provides small grants and loans toward participants' goals — seed money that helps fill the gaps for upwardly mobile members losing state and federal benefits.

FII hasn't yet commissioned the sort of control-group study that is the gold standard in the social sciences. That's in the works. But the initial results are promising. The first group of Boston families, who joined in 2010, saw median income jump 16 percent in two years. Half of those who started out below the poverty line crossed it.

Francia Peguero, a Dominican immigrant in that first cohort of families, says FII's financial support helped her fix her credit score, move out of public housing in Roxbury and buy a duplex on a modest, suburban street in Norwood.

But it was the social support of the group that was most important, she says. When the process of buying a home grew frustrating, her group encouraged her to stay with it.

"There was nothing that was kept from the group," she says. "No matter what problem you were going through, you were exposed there."

On a recent afternoon, Peguero showed a reporter around her new house — her white-walled living room, her sons' colorful bedroom and the kitchen where she bakes banana bread and dances merengue and salsa with her 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Giandra.

"I'm proud," she says.

No Easy Answers To Affordable Housing Challenge

Peguero says she considered buying a house in Boston. But the price was prohibitive.

It's a common refrain in this city, where surging wealth has made one of the nation's most expensive housing markets even more difficult to afford.

Indeed, while early education is getting a lot of attention — Gov. Deval Patrick mentioned it in his State of the Commonwealth address last month and President Obama in his State of the Union — the basic issue of affordable housing could be the signature problem for any mayor tackling inequality in a big, rich, 21st century city.

Mayor Walsh has a few ideas. He wants to expand the city's housing stock to put downward pressure on prices. He wants to turn vacant city land into affordable housing.

And advocates hope Walsh, a former state legislator, will turn his Beacon Hill connections into more state funding for rent support.

But there are no easy answers to this problem. And it's painful one.

A room at the St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A room at the St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

St. Ambrose Family Shelter in Dorchester used to be an old convent. It's three stories tall. Red brick. Simple and clean and spare. Rick Freitas, the longtime manager, says the shelter recently cleaned out storage space to make room for four more families.

Rosalie Hernandez, 25, lives in a very small room. There are two mattresses, just a couple of feet away. One is stacked with bags of clothes. She sleeps on the other with her 7-year-old son Jeshuan.

Hernandez's story is partly about an accumulation of family crises. Her own childhood was split between Chelsea, Puerto Rico and foster care. Her boyfriend, Jeshuan's father, was murdered.

But her tale is also about low-wage restaurant jobs and rents she couldn't afford, bouncing from one friend's apartment to another and trying to take care of her son along the way.

Once, she had to pull a crib mattress from the street and wipe it clean. Another time, she spent days searching for a jacket for her son, but couldn't find one. Eventually, she gave him her own.

The memory leaves her sobbing on the shelter's couch. "I'm just relieved that he doesn't remember, because he was so small," she says. "But I tried my best."

Hernandez says she's found some stability at the shelter. She's taking an introductory course to the medical field — one of the great strengths of this affluent city.

Walsh, who grew up a few blocks from here, says he wants people like Hernandez to get a piece of that affluence, to close the gap in one of the least equitable cities in the country.

It's the challenge of his administration. And it's an enormous one.


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