Income inequality continues to grow in America and has even accelerated, post-2009, in the aftermath of the Great Recession. What is new, however, is the attention the nation has placed on income inequality. President Obama cemented the conversation into the national dialogue this past January when he highlighted income inequality as one of our most significant shortcomings as a nation. And more recently, inequality dominated conversations at an annual meeting of U.S. mayors, where New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is leading a task force on the issue.
Indeed, the growing debate today around how to shrink income inequality is unprecedented. Yet, despite public and political clamoring for solutions, the federal government has been unable to move on the issue. With political gridlock limiting the federal government’s potential role in addressing the issues of growing poverty and income inequality, cities and metropolitan areas have increasingly taken matters into their own hands. Following more modest minimum wage hikes in cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco earlier this year, Seattle’s recent passing of a $15.00 minimum wage is perhaps the most significant step forward on the issue to date. By navigating the political complexity and accounting for the economic implications of such legislation, the Seattle City Council has set the precedent for other cities, large and small, to follow suit.
Seattle’s legislation is invigorating this conversation in cities across the U.S., and numerous ambitious proposals are in the works. In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently appointed a task force to consider raising the city’s minimum above that of the state. In Los Angeles, lawmakers have been advocating to raise the wages of hotel workers to $15.37. And in San Diego, Oakland and several other cities around the country, more aggressive action has been taken by municipalities ahead of federal action on the issue.
Though exciting, we know that raising wages is only one factor in tackling widening income inequality (especially considering that even $15 per hour is not necessarily enough to live a quality life in many U.S. cities). Still, higher incomes for low-wage earners will reduce many of the existing barriers to housing, transportation, health care and other essentials, providing workers with more stable and productive lives. And bottom line, they’ll have more income to spend locally.
More importantly, Seattle’s push for a $15 minimum wage is a big step towards improving job quality for low-wage workers and low-skill job-seekers. Characterized by better wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement, quality jobs are an increasingly important focus of workforce development efforts. Funders and workforce advocates alike have begun calling for workforce development to focus not only on building career ladders, but also on raising the floor of job quality standards. By raising the baseline of job quality, cities and states can focus workforce development efforts on developing a broader set of available job openings, rather than struggling to stop gap the declining number of well-paying positions with reasonable skills expectations.
Beyond changing the landscape of opportunity and inequality in Seattle, the $15 minimum wage legislation is setting a precedent for increased leadership on tackling growing income inequality, and catalyzing dialogue and action across the nation. At Living Cities, we’re helping to connect city leaders so they can learn from how others have attempted to tackle common urban challenges. Through our Project on Municipal Innovation (PMI), we convene chiefs of staff and policy directors from around the country to grapple together with seemingly intractable problems, including rising income inequality in cities. As we support ongoing dialogue and collaboration across the network, this platform is an ideal space for learning and exploring how cities are individually tackling income inequality, and how Seattle’s city government navigated the political challenges of raising the minimum wage and what they learned from attempts at implementation.
While raising minimum wage may not be a silver-bullet for closing the startling wealth gap in this country, it is an essential step forward in improving economic opportunity for low-income people. Seattle’s success offers a leading example of how one city took the lead and began to tackle income inequality on its own terms. Which American city will be next?