Tackling Inequity With A Long View

By Neil Kleiman Stephen Goldsmith • May 16, 2014

This blog is co-authored by Stephen Goldsmith and Neil Kleiman. This post is written in response to the May 12, 2014 Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities #urbanopportunity group blogging event, which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

The Great Recession has receded, but the economic well-being of many Americans continues to stagnate or sink. According to a Brookings analysis by Alan Berube, the income divide is deepest in our biggest and most economically successful cities: in cities as diverse as Atlanta, San Francisco, Miami, and Boston, households in the 95th percentile of income earn over 15 times those in the 20th percentile.

How can mayors best tackle such inequality? One of us is more conservative economically in his outlook and the other more progressive.  Sharp lines often divide these camps. For us the common ground exceeds the differences—we both believe cities are great places and should in the Jane Jacobs sense build the middle class.  We also believe that vast income disparity threatens the civic fabric. 

New elected mayors in Seattle and New York City are aggressively tackling such issues as affordable housing, minimum wage, and early childhood education.

These are important areas to take on, but when tackling an issue as complex as inequity there must be a range of solutions that are complementary. There are many issues--career advancement and educational disparity--where we just don’t know all the answers; where an experimental and wholly different approach is needed.

This is in many ways is the embodiment of an innovative approach to government. It’s about looking at government’s mission and configuration in a new light. And it requires collaborating with new actors--from foundations, universities and the private sector--to tap into fresh ideas, provide dollars to support pilots and serve as operational partners. Below are two examples that take on inequity with a long-view, pilot new approaches and strive to move the needle in American cities.

Economic Development

This has historically been seen as a no-brainer: Cities should do all they can to create more jobs. Increasingly, this means knowledge-and research-based jobs in technology, health-care and advanced manufacturing. But such industries often have the highest levels of inequity as many local residents are not qualified for many of the available positions. Taking this issue on is difficult and demands patience, careful planning and the formation of partnerships.

In 2003, the Boston Foundation launched SkillWorks to improve workforce development in Boston and across Massachusetts. This initiative integrated the work of philanthropies, governments, community organizations, and employers to address the twin goals of helping low income individuals attain family-supporting jobs and helping businesses find skilled workers. It does this through investing in training programs, preparing and connecting people to post-secondary education, working on public policy efforts to create better pathways to post-secondary education and training and prioritizing growing sectors in the Massachusetts economy.

In its first phase (2003 to 2008), more than 3,000 workers received skills training, with hundreds entering the workforce or receiving raises and promotions. In the second phase, (2009 to 2013), SkillWorks focused on better connecting community colleges and post-secondary institutions to the workforce development system in Massachusetts. Announced in February 2014, the third phase (2014 to 2018) will equip area workers and employers with competitive skills for the 21st century through building career pathways in the construction, healthcare, hospitality and health insurance industries.   

Economic development efforts, such as the example above, should not only focus on creating new jobs in the marketplace, but investing in citizens to help them become in-demand workers through increased skills and equitable compensation.


We agree that nothing will close the opportunity gap more than a quality education—starting with PreK and going on through college graduation. Policy experts may disagree on the tools for change—teacher empowerment, charters, vouchers, more money, class size—but few doubt that a quality education is the predicate for wealth.

Another promising approach we have seen is in higher education. It’s now well-documented that rising income is directly linked to a college education, but for many there are significant obstacles in the way of earning degrees. Among these is the fact that graduation rates for community colleges--the most affordable option--are dismally low: the national urban community college three-year graduation rate is only about 15 percent. With higher ed such a clear gateway to increased income and so many students enrolling, why do so many leave without a degree?

About seven years ago, the City University of New York and New York’s Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) set out to find answers. CEO is an experimental unit of the Mayor’s office focused on anti-poverty issues that Mayor Michael Bloomberg created and Mayor Bill de Blasio sustained. With City funding through the CEO, CUNY piloted a program to test what was needed to significantly increase three-year graduation rates.

The program, Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), addressed many of the ways in which the traditional community college experience was not working for a large proportion of students. Students needed more than just affordable tuition. They needed comprehensive support and structures to help them piece together what can be a bewildering array of choices between course and degree options, and to navigate the demands of work, school and life. The ASAP program addresses this through mandatory academic counseling; block course schedules and many little perks (such as books on loan to avoid the cost and hassle of purchasing new texts).  

The pilot worked and helped 55 percent of the original cohort--more than triple the national average--complete associate’s degrees within three years, and has since been expanded to serve 4,000 students across the City University systems. ASAP does cost more up-front, but cost-benefit analyses have found that total expenditures per graduate are much lower, and that the public sector investment is also recouped several times over after factoring in the foregone costs of other public services and increased income tax revenues.

Initiatives such as the ones highlighted above, along with efforts that change the way in which government functions such as Governor Mike Pence’s initiative to create a system to collect and share data from state education and workforce development agencies, highlight how cities can begin to tackle some of the most complicated aspects of inequity. As we know, there is no silver bullet for the inequity in our cities, but we remain optimistic that through collaborative partnerships and innovative approaches cities can better connect residents to economic opportunity.