How Your City Can Boost Economic Mobility and Opportunity
National League of Cities President Matt Zone challenges every NLC member city to take action to increase economic mobility and opportunity for their residents in 2017.
Cities can’t wait. That’s true in so many areas where federal or state help is stymied by partisan gridlock or ideological differences. But mayors and other city leaders don’t have the option of doing nothing in the face of local challenges. They have to step up – and taking steps to expand economic mobility and opportunity is a great example of what’s possible.
At NLC’s 2017 Congressional City Conference this week, NLC President Matt Zone issued a bold challenge to NLC membership: he asked every one of the more than 2,000 city officials and community partners in attendance to commit to one action that will help local residents share in the nation’s prosperity. This challenge builds upon President Zone’s creation of an Economic Mobility and Opportunity Task Force when he assumed his NLC leadership role in November 2016.
Last fall’s elections offered a striking reminder that millions of financially strained families across America feel they are forgotten, cast aside in an economy that no longer needs their skills or contributions. Growing economic disparities highlight that families need access to well-paying jobs, affordable housing and stable incomes in their pursuit of the American Dream. These challenges are a key concern for city leaders because the financial health of every community depends on economic mobility and opportunity for its residents.
That’s why members of the Economic Mobility and Opportunity Task Force – from Atlanta Mayor and Task Force Chair Kasim Reed and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to elected leaders from smaller cities such as Mayor Johnny DuPree of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Councilmember Deana Holiday Ingraham of East Point, Georgia – have already pledged to take action in their cities.
President Zone’s action challenge highlights practical and accessible steps city leaders can take in four key areas to help individuals and families meet their basic needs and move up the economic ladder. They include:
Boost Working Families’ Incomes — Promote and Help Residents Claim the Earned Income Tax Credit
City officials can use their “bully pulpit” and other city communication mechanisms to promote the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) widely and inform residents about where they can obtain free tax preparation services. Most communities have a VITA (Voluntary Income Tax Assistance) program in which IRS-certified volunteers provide free tax return preparation for low- and moderate-income families at community organizations or other sites around the city. Some cities offer VITA sites directly in municipal buildings such as city hall or public libraries.
Strengthen Residents’ Financial Capability – Expand Access to Financial Education and Coaching
In many communities, financial education, coaching and counseling services are available through community organizations, credit counseling agencies, local universities, and other entities. Too often, however, city residents do not know where or how to access these services. Cities can play important roles in coordinating the efforts of local providers and using diverse communications and outreach vehicles to promote available offerings, particularly in low-income neighborhoods.
Provide New Options for Families in Debt – Implement Win-Win City Debt Collection Strategies
Cities have a unique – and often missed – opportunity to reach struggling residents by examining payment patterns of residents in debt to the city and considering payment collection strategies that financially empower families rather than impose harsh penalties for nonpayment.
The National League of Cities worked with five cities to implement Local Interventions for Financial Empowerment Through Utility Payments (LIFT-UP), a program that identified residents in debt to the cities’ water utilities and connected them to financial counseling to help them pay back the debt. In Houston, the city’s water department partnered with community organizations to train utility employees to provide financial coaching to residents with missed utility payments and work with them to develop a payment plan. The program resulted in more frequent payments and lower balances.
Expand Job Access and Pathways of Opportunity – Use City Hiring and Contracting Policies to Assist Residents in Distressed Neighborhoods
Cities can increase employment among residents considered “hard to employ” through strategic and equitable hiring and contracting policies. By targeting hiring for municipal jobs to residents from distressed neighborhoods or other high-need populations, cities can meet local employment goals and diversify their workforce. Local “first source” policies and community benefit agreements require companies that contract with city government to hire a certain percentage of city residents who meet established criteria. Community benefit agreements can also require developers to offer training and apprenticeship programs for unemployed residents.
Mayors, city councilmembers and other city officials can pledge to participate in the action challenge by choosing to take at least one of the action steps listed above and completing a simple online form. Experienced staff from NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families and its Center for City Solutions are available to assist cities in implementing the policy and program changes associated with these actions.
Cities can’t wait – and neither can the struggling families who live in them. Now is the time for city leaders to act to expand economic mobility and opportunity for their residents and, in the process, strengthen the economic vitality of their communities.
Learn more about the Local Action Challenge for Economic Mobility and Opportunity.
About the author: Clifford Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.