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What Mayors Worry About (and Ought to Worry About)

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What Mayors Worry About (and Ought to Worry About)

Governing December 16, 2021
Urban PolicyCrimeEducationHousingInfrastructure & Transportation

Some of their concerns, such as housing costs and homelessness, track with those of their constituents. But elected leaders should pay more attention to crime, inflation and other issues increasingly on the minds of residents.

We ask regular Americans what’s on their minds, so why not our elected officials? Thanks to Boston University, we can do just that for mayors, and what’s on their minds is our minds — more precisely, our mental health and learning loss for kids. These concerns far outweigh worries that typically rise to the top in surveys of their constituents, such as rising violent crime or cost of living. It turns out that mayors are not always of one mind with their residents or with experts on important issues, let alone agree among themselves on what to do about them.

This year’s Menino Survey of Mayors, named after the late Boston mayor Thomas Menino and conducted annually since 2014, asked 126 leaders of large and midsize cities about the long-term impacts of COVID-19. More than half of the mayors said mental health challenges and trauma resulting from the pandemic were their top concern.

That’s not a misplaced worry: Public health data suggests growing rates of anxiety and depression during the pandemic, most notably among children. Meanwhile, suicides and fatal drug overdoses are soaring. Many of the mayors “were talking about the ways in which people felt fearful, emotionally drained, anxious, cautious or on edge,” said Katherine Levine Einstein, a professor at Boston University and the survey’s lead investigator, in an interview with Axios.

Mayors’ concern for learning loss among young people — second in their list of priorities — also seems spot on. We know that students are making slower progress in math and reading after nearly two years of classroom turmoil. Younger, poorer and nonwhite students have suffered the steepest learning losses, as have children in districts that relied more heavily on remote learning. And parents responded: During the pandemic, America has seen the largest loss in public school enrollment since World War II.

The greatest area of agreement between residents and mayors seems to be on the related topics of high housing costs and homelessness. These issues, along with transportation infrastructure, are at the top of the mayors’ spending lists for federal American Rescue Plan funds. Similarly, our Manhattan Institute survey of the 20 metros with largest population growth, conducted over roughly the same period as the Menino mayoral survey, found that housing and homelessness far outweighed every other concern of residents.

Yet this is exactly where mayors are least in agreement on solutions. The most popular policy answer — boosting housing density in established neighborhoods — showed a more than 30-point partisan split, with Democratic mayors far more in favor than Republicans. Emphasizing homeownership in housing policy was similarly split along partisan lines (three-quarters of Republicans in favor) as were tenant protections (a Democratic favorite by a more than 30-point margin).

Disconnects and Discord

Another concern with these poll results is what mayors aren’t as worried about: crime. Just 26 percent of mayors considered rising crime a long-term concern. But 2020’s spate of violence hasn’t so far proved to be an aberration. Homicides jumped by nearly 30 percent last year, an incredible surge, and this year at least a dozen major cities have set all-time homicide records. Residents are clearly concerned: Our Manhattan Institute poll found six in 10 saying crime was increasing in their area, and nationwide the share that agree is nearing a 25-year high.

If there’s a disconnect on crime between residents and their mayors, there’s also one between elected officials and experts on the future of remote work and its potential impact on cities. Research from Upwork suggests that anywhere from 14 to 23 million Americans are planning to move thanks to the increasing availability of telecommuting. Both individuals and companies are finding it easier than ever to relocate, particularly those in the knowledge-based businesses of the future that have seen the greatest adoption of remote work. “This extra dose of flexibility means that cities will have to work harder than they have since the 1970s to hold on to their tax bases,” observed David Cutler and Edward Glaeser in their latest book, “Survival of the City.” Yet only 7 percent of mayors say they’re worried about this shift to remote work, and just 2 percent are concerned about outmigration.

The space between what mayors see and what their residents are actually concerned about is one that’s rife for discord. Education, for example, is at the bottom of the list of where mayors intend to make long-term investments with federal aid, despite calls from teachers for more resources and from parents for greater concern for their children’s well-being.

Mayors may protest that their relative disinterest toward educational investments is due to their lack of direct control of dollars or outcomes, but that hasn’t stopped their focus on mental health or data gathering for climate justice and racial equity — weighty but systemic issues hardly solved by mayors alone. If anything, mayors seem more concerned with how they feel residents are perceiving them and interacting with them; some mayors cited polarization as being a mental health concern.

The Gap Between the Elected and the Electorate

For being the most representative survey of mayors in America, it’s remarkable how unrepresentative of their communities the Menino Survey respondents are as a body: Nearly 80 percent are white, some two-thirds are male while a similar share have a law degree, and just 18 percent are Republicans. This gap between the elected and the electorate is worsened by the low-turnout, relatively uncompetitive elections that bring many local leaders to office with little fear of reprisal come re-election time. Meanwhile, Americans in major metros are proving to be more diverse and centrist than their elected officials. Their local concerns do not fit into neat partisan buckets, and anyone who’s paid attention to fights these past few years over policing, classrooms, the cost of living and more knows that these constituent concerns aren’t going away any time soon.

Last year, mayors were forecasting financial ruin due to COVID-19’s impact on local economies. Now, with federal aid and flush budgets, they say they’re shifting their focus to longer-term concerns, like boosting their local workforce and supporting small businesses. This should all be for the good of the cities they represent. But they must take care to listen to what their citizens actually want and to put those concerns first, and they need to be alert to emerging issues such as the impact of inflation, which more-recent polls show becoming top of mind.

Mayor Menino once said that “the true privilege of being mayor is that I have the opportunity to be everyone’s neighbor.” Knowing their neighbors will be the challenge facing every mayor in the years ahead.

This piece originally appeared at the Governing

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Michael Hendrix is the director of state & local policy at the Manhattan Institute.

Photo by SeanPavonePhoto/iStock

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