Mayors: Cities have critical role in advancing economic mobility

Bloomberg Cities
11 min readOct 9, 2019
Rochester, N.Y., Mayor Lovely Warren (left), New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (middle) and Tulsa, Okla., Mayor G.T. Bynum (right) spoke last week about how to advance economic mobility for city residents.

When it comes to helping residents move up the economic ladder to achieve the “American Dream,” nobody understands better than mayors that City Hall has a big role to play.

Three U.S. mayors who are leading the fight joined Bloomberg Philanthropies’ James Anderson last week for a discussion on how local governments can advance economic mobility. Their cities are among nine testing new interventions through an economic mobility initiative spearheaded by What Works Cities. As their experiments play out over the next year, these cities will boost the evidence base on what local strategies help to build opportunity in local communities.

In Tulsa, Okla., Mayor G.T. Bynum’s team is testing new approaches to help young adults gain job skills that match the growing employment opportunities in the city. Under Mayor LaToya Cantrell, New Orleans has a similar goal and is working to make sure that city-supported internship experiences are a pipeline to successful job placements. And in Rochester, N.Y., Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration wants to encourage low-income residents to save more of the annual refund they get on their federal taxes.

The three mayors spoke at Results for America’s annual summit in Washington, D.C., the theme of which was using data and evidence to advance economic mobility. Read below for some of the highlights, or watch a full video of the conversation here.

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What’s the motivation behind your city’s economic mobility initiatives?

G.T. Bynum: Tulsa was the scene of the worst city-based race massacre in American history. It happened in 1921. A white mob went into a vibrant African-American area known as Black Wall Street and burned it to the ground. And for 80 years, it wasn’t talked about in schools, it wasn’t talked about in public forums — generations grew up in our city never even knowing that it happened. We’ve started working on how do we address this and try to rebuild the part of the city, North Tulsa, that was impacted by it.

We’ve landed the two largest new employers in the history of the city, and both will be located in North Tulsa. We want to make sure the folks who live in the area, and especially their kids, have the skills to get jobs with the companies we’re bringing in here.

We’re working with an organization called Tulsa Community WorkAdvance to target young Tulsans who are in between the ages of 18 and 24 who aren’t in school and don’t have jobs. We want to help them develop the skills they need to get the jobs that we’re bringing to this area. One big thing we’ll be focusing on is educational attainment. And, of course, we’re pressing college, but college isn’t the only solution to this. You have to have a multi-pronged solution.

[Read: Economic mobility: Why cities are stepping up to the challenge]

We’re also focusing on entrepreneurship. We want North Tulsa to be Black Wall Street again, and to have the property ownership in that area again be focused in the African-American community. The work we’re doing is driven by data, but this is about more than economic development for us — it’s about social justice.

LaToya Cantrell: There’s a tremendous skills gap in terms of ensuring that our young people are prepared for the jobs that are growing in the city of New Orleans. The technology company DXC has made a commitment to several thousand jobs in New Orleans. But if we’re not preparing the young people of the city to take advantage of those opportunities, and the company has to look outside the city for its workforce, then that doesn’t benefit the city of New Orleans, or more importantly, the families who are the backbone. It really does start with focusing on our young people.

Watch the full video of the mayors’ economic mobility conversation.

We were able to provide 100 jobs to 100 system-involved youth — ages 14 to 21 — this summer. With wraparound services, transportation, you name it, 96 percent of those young people have gotten on the right path. They haven’t gotten in trouble, they’re staying in school. We’re tracking and watching and monitoring them, and doing a lot of handholding.

Now, thanks to [the economic mobility initiative], we can again focus on these young people, but in an internship capacity. We’ll be connecting them with employers in the city. But we recognized that the employers may say that it’s too cumbersome — the paperwork that’s required, tracking these young people and do this hand holding. So we said, “We’ll give you a playbook [to make it easy for employers to participate.]”

We’re also looking at small businesses. The data show us that although 52 percent of small businesses in the city are minority-owned, they only make up 2 percent of the receipts. So I’ve developed another initiative, 2 to 20, that means moving that 2 percent to 20 percent by 2020. We have to be intentional here.

Just this week I broke up larger scale projects that are multi-million dollar projects, so that small businesses, which are normally the “subs” on jobs can bid as prime [contractors]. We need to meet people where they are so they can have a stake in this opportunity, and take advantage of it, build wealth, and create those jobs.

Lovely Warren: My grandparents came from Kingstree, S.C. — they were sharecroppers, and my father came to this country as an illegal immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. And they chose to live in Rochester because they wanted a better opportunity for the next generation. They wanted their children’s children to be able to live the “American Dream.” And what I saw happening in our city is that we had a whole segment of our community that was being left behind. Part of our community was moving forward, but there was another part that was stuck.

[Read: Looking for ways to build city residents’ wealth]

So I created an Office of Community Wealth Building. It’s trying to help people in our community learn how to make their money work for them. So that’s through the Financial Empowerment Centers [where residents can access free financial counseling]. But also, when we file tax returns, a lot of our residents get a significant amount of money from the Earned Income Tax Credit. Sometimes, it’s upwards of $10,000 they get in a lump sum.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren: Cities can create a stairway out of poverty, but residents have to want to walk it.

People who haven’t been trained, or don’t know how to make that money work for them, might go out and buy new furniture or a new car [with that money]. They don’t go out and save it for a house, or save it for their children’s education, or have it available in a crisis like when their car breaks down. What we’re trying to do in Rochester is allow those dollars they receive, spread it out over a period of time, give it in quarterly increments. We’re also providing matching funds. We’re creating a stairway out of poverty. As Mayor Cantrell said, we’re meeting people where they’re at. What is it that you need — and how can we help you be successful? We have to create the stairway, but they have to want to walk it.

How are you going about building opportunity where people live now?

Lovely Warren: Part of meeting people where they are is understanding that there may be a better way of providing information to them and not assuming they know better. For many years, we’ve looked at economic mobility and poverty as “everyone needs to fit into this circle.” Sometimes people are a square, a triangle, or rectangle. We have to change to meet the needs of our people and we cannot build systems that only fit one particular mold because it won’t work.

LaToya Cantrell: As a mayor, you have to have the courage to just bust the system up. I was faced with that this year around infrastructure. The state of Louisiana receives the majority of the revenue generated from hospitality. New Orleans is a world-class city, hospitality-focused, and the engine that drives the state. We received 18 million visitors in the past year, and if you do the math, it’s like 40 visitors per resident. All those people flushing toilets, using services — it matters. But we would get less than 9 cents on the dollar.

So I had to lead the charge at the state level. And I was told no way, it’ll never happen, New Orleans would not get another dime from the taxes generated. Well, pushing that status quo, working relationships around the state — you know what, the state legislature this spring gave the city of New Orleans a little bit more of what she generates, upfront $50 million, recurring $27 million for infrastructure. People said it could never happen. But it built momentum and it showed our people that we can fight for what we know we need. You have to think about the people who are the backbone of that industry, who are not paid a living wage. We have to push. We have to get outside the comfort zone. Absolutely, you can bring people with you.

G.T. Bynum: We know from looking at data that kids growing up in North Tulsa are expected to live 11 years less than kids growing up elsewhere in the city. It’s one of the reasons I ran for mayor — the city needs to be doing something about that. Those kids should not be robbed of a decade of their life just because of where they happen to grow up. So that’s why we established as a goal for us that Tulsa is a city where every kid has an equal shot at a great life. That’s our goal.

Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum: Data informs all of the city’s efforts to combat inequality.

To do that, we’ve partnered with the City University of New York to create what we call the Equality Indicators. Again, you always want to go back to the data — not using gut feel or anecdotes, but really utilize demographic data that’s collected independently in the community. City University takes this and translates it into a report we’ve published two years in a row. And it measures the level of equality in Tulsa across a broad range of spectrums.

[It’s informed] a lot of debates in our city over the last two years, in particular around police use of force based on race. There’s issues around age, veterans status, especially around economic development. The ratio of banks to payday loan centers: What parts of the city is that skewed and where is that unequal? We try to utilize that data and that allows us to try different strategies each year to draw more equality in our city across this broad range of spectrums and to see which factors are working and which aren’t.

[Read: Mayors: How executive training helped me innovate in City Hall]

The most important thing I can convey is that the use of data is not a value in and of itself. For us, data is a tool that allows you to take things out of the realm of philosophical debate and partisan division and instead just boil it down to practical problem solving.

What are the benefits of getting data into the hands of the community?

Lovely Warren: In Rochester, we’re surrounded by 19 colleges and universities, and we also have a lot of not-for-profits in our community. There’s been a disconnect between sectors. So we’ve all come together and are sitting at the table talking about how health disparities impact what’s happening in our hospitals and our neighborhoods and our environment. One thing that’s been very important to us is to utilize the data to cross-connect and pollinate [these conversations]. When you’re able to do that, you’re able to see that we’re all serving the same population in a different way.

That’s how we’ve been able to utilize the data outside of City Hall, to connect the dots for our residents, so that what’s happening with their diabetes or health is being monitored and checked. We’re looking at what’s going on in the environment in the neighborhood where they live — is that causing their asthma attack or is it something else? Is it lead poisoning that’s causing our children to act out in school? When it comes to lead poisoning in children, this year, we’ve had the lowest number [of cases] in over a decade. And we continue to reduce lead poisoning in children because of that focus in utilizing those health disparities, to actually tell us what’s happening with children in classrooms and what we need to do as a city.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell: Workforce development “really does start with focusing on your young people.”

G.T. Bynum: My first year as mayor we created a program called the Urban Data Pioneers. When I was coming into office, there were so many things we wanted to apply data to and analyze and develop solutions around, and we financially couldn’t hire enough data analysts to do all that work for the city. Yet we felt there were a lot of people in the community who know how to analyze data and don’t necessarily get hit up a lot to utilize that skill.

So we advertised it on social media and in the first year we had over 100 people participate. We found we had a lot of people in our community who work in banks and hospitals and energy companies who have this very unique skill. They want to help our community. And so we gave them a vehicle to do that. We said here’s all this data, help us solve these problems.

[Read: 9 Ways cities can use data for results]

One tangible win we’ve had is they analyzed our 911 call data and compared staffing data to the call volume. And they found that we needed to shift our staffing to be at peak call times. That’s helped us improve our response times for those 911 calls. Again, this is a group of volunteers in the community that took the data we made available to them, that we were collecting anyway, and we empowered them to utilize it to improve our city and our service delivery.

LaToya Cantrell: We’ve made sure data is accessible, whether it’s at our libraries, or recreation centers, or of course, City Hall. But one thing we recognized is we were pushing the data and information out — but there were walls where information couldn’t flow to us. So we opened it up so residents know: I want to hear from you.

Part of this is building trust, because you can have the data out there, but if they don’t trust you, it’s like yeah right. So opening it up through two-way communication has helped us build trust. Because they can speak to us in real time, give me whatever issue they have, we get it. But then we also respond on the ground, which builds trust. They begin to trust the information that you’re sharing.

It’s a work in progress, but again, meeting people where they are, letting them know that they matter and that when they reach out to you that you’re actually listening. And that we’re not afraid of it. You can tell me — you can rip me a new one, it’s OK. But I’m open to that. It’s understanding that the information cannot be just top-down it has to be bottom-up.



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