“Cities aren’t full of poor people because cities make people poor, but because cities attract poor people with the prospect of improving their lot in life.” Edward Glaeser, “Triumph of the City.”
Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, referenced this quote in conversation with GenPop — he even cited the page number in the Harvard economist’s seminal book.
When Soglin wonders What the Future he thinks about two key trends: inequality and urbanism. And he thinks about how cities, in his case city government, can create more equity for those prospecting for a better life.
About 12 percent of the global economy and half of the U.S. economy is driven by the 20 largest U.S. metro areas. Each of those metros could equal a pretty good size national economy. Yet with all that wealth generated, three to four of every 10 dollars is held by just 1 percent of our citizens.
Meanwhile, the economy continues to shift from one based in manufacturing to one based in the knowledge and service industries. The jobs associated with this change are moving from places like the Rust Belt to places like the West Coast and the South. Problem is, not enough of us are moving with those jobs. Americans are less mobile now than ever, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. President Trump has weighed in that people need to move where the jobs are.
This is a long-term trend impacting our housing situation and our governments. Soglin wanted to know more about those who do move and what role they see government having in their economic success. Ipsos helped provide some answers by looking at how geographic mobility and economic mobility go together, and how people view the role of their local government in helping them climb the ladder. An Ipsos study found that movers are consistently better off, compared to stayers, and that positive outcome increases over time. Movers are also consistently more satis ed with local government compared to stayers.
“If gold were to rain down on our cities we’d be foolish not to pick it up.”
Mayor Paul Soglin: From the standpoint of a viable city we want people moving in; we don’t want them moving out. If gold were to rain down on our cities we’d be foolish not to pick it up. Every person that comes to the city has potential to become an economic asset. Some might be an asset the day they arrive. For the family of four or ve with children lagging behind in school and parents lacking employable job skills, we can make an investment in them over three to ve years, and they become assets. Or we can ignore them, and they become liabilities for the rest of their lives. I gure the investment is well worthwhile.
Poor people are going to go where jobs are increasing, particularly where their skillsets are needed in the local economy. Since those people will be coming to our community, I want to make sure they become assets and not liabilities. One of the things that has characterized cities that are economically growing is their low-income population is growing, which begs the question: are [cities] prepared for [low-income growth] in terms of their housing and educational system? Where you’ve got skillset and job requirements mismatched, what are you prepared to do about it? If they’re retirees, we’re not particularly worried about them. They most likely wouldn’t be moving unless they had the assets to be successful.
GenPop: What can cities do to help new residents succeed?
Soglin: You have to anticipate what their needs will be. There has to be adequate housing. The school system has to be prepared, which means addressing the needs of children who are not in the appropriate grade for their age. Transportation is a requirement. And then there’s supportive services of health care and child care. There may also be demands in terms of language if you’re a city that is attracting a more diverse population.
We have a staff group that’s meeting on housing costs. The way we fashion our message is that we don’t want to become San Francisco. We don’t want the housing prices so high that real people can’t live here, nor do we want the sprawl of Silicon Valley, where the jobs are inaccessible.
GenPop: Why do you think people are coming to Madison?
Soglin: Most of the movers into a community are making the judgement based on having a better life. Normally the highest two priorities are economics and quality of life. The quality of life is really a day-to-day experience focused on environmental bene ts of a community, quality of public schools, short commute times and things of that sort. Sometimes people will go to a community like Houston because it’s a boom town and there are jobs for everyone, and they’re not looking at all those other variables.
GenPop: Clearly this has an impact on housing development, too. What are you doing in Madison?
Soglin: We must ef ciently build with greater density and be conscientious
of the needed amenities. I’m going to go to a ribbon-cutting of subsidized housing for working families with household incomes of $40,000 a year. Without the subsidization, they would be paying 40-50% of their income for rent. They’re an important part of our workforce. Building that housing in the suburbs might cost two-thirds what it would cost to build in the city, but it has all kinds of environmental and transportation issues.
GenPop: What does long-term urbanization of the population mean for the future of smaller areas like Madison?
Soglin: A signi cant disadvantage is a modest transportation network compared to larger cities. But offsetting that is our size, which allows us to be more nimble and responsive. It allows us to be quicker in addressing a lot of these challenging social and economic issues.
Paul Soglin is in the second term of his third stint as mayor of Madison, Wisconsin.