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US mayors sound the alarm over impact of Covid-19 pandemic on their cities

This was one of the messages from the Menino Survey of Mayors, the only national representative survey of America’s mayors conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities.

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Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser highlighted the city's collective response to the pandemic
Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser highlighted the city's collective response to the pandemic

US mayors have painted a troubling picture for the future of their cities in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, warning of major long-term impacts without a “strong and cohesive” federal response, according to a new study.

 

The caution follows hard on the heels of a similar message from the National League of Cities that America’s cities, towns and villages would be “significantly impacted” if Congress failed to pass another stimulus package that included aid to cities.

 

Impact on schools

 

In this year’s Menino Survey of Mayors, conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities, mayors cite the impact on schools as a top long-term concern.

 

Nearly half of mayors expect to see ‘dramatic’ cuts to public school budgets, more than any other budget item presented, despite the unprecedented adverse impact the pandemic has had on K-12 learning throughout the country. And while a slight majority of mayors believes public schools will “return to normal” in 2021, nearly half expect it will take even longer.

 

Mayors are also pessimistic about the future of small businesses in their cities, especially those owned by or that serve non-white communities. Only around one-third expect small businesses that closed due to the Covid-19 economy will be quickly replaced by new ones – signaling the possibility of a dramatic upheaval to the local small business landscape.

“With the federal government still unable to come to an agreement on additional stimulus, we suspect mayors may actually be underestimating just how much their cities will change”

Two-thirds of mayors fear non-white small business owners will be feeling a lot of economic harm into next summer, while half believe the same to be the case for white small business owners.

 

“In the seven years of conducting the Menino Survey of Mayors, one of the most consistent findings, no matter the question topic, is a general sense of optimism among our cities’ leaders,” said Graham Wilson, director of Boston University’s Initiative on Cities.

 

“This year, while we still hear glimmers of optimism, their pessimism in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic is palpable. And with the pandemic still spreading and “the federal government still unable to come to an agreement on additional stimulus, we suspect mayors may actually be underestimating just how much their cities will change.”

 

Among all their constituent groups, mayors are most worried about the long-term economic impact on communities already suffering from structural racism and inequality: roughly two in three said that Latinos, renters, immigrants, and Black residents would still be feeling at least “a lot” of economic harm from Covid-19 next summer.

 

Additionally, more than four-fifths of mayors expect racial health disparities to widen in the future – reporting they do not expect the attention Covid-19 is bringing to the issues to lead to progress.

 

“Our residents and businesses have made tremendous sacrifices throughout this pandemic, and as our collective response and recovery continues, we are very focused on how we ensure everyone makes it to the other side,” added Muriel Bowser, mayor of Washington DC.

 

“This virus has laid bare long-standing inequities, and as the survey shows, mayors are leading from the frontlines to protect their communities. But cities and states can’t do it alone; we need a strong and cohesive federal response that addresses the health crisis, the economic crisis, and the disparities this pandemic has exacerbated.”

 

While additional economic stimulus from the federal government remains in limbo, mayors overwhelmingly agree that even the previous stimulus funding through the Cares Act was not enough to address the needs of their cities.

“But cities and states can’t do it alone; we need a strong and cohesive federal response that addresses the health crisis, the economic crisis, and the disparities this pandemic has exacerbated”

Only 13 per cent of mayors believe these programmes provided enough support to match the needs of their cities’ small businesses, while nearly half said there was a “large gap” between what was made available and what was needed. In response to an open-ended question about the ways in which mayors can best protect vulnerable small businesses—without additional federal or state support—they most often discussed the creation of new grants (36 per cent) and loans (28 per cent), along with regulatory relief (30 per cent).

 

Federal policies

 

Mayors did express support (with some polarisation) for potential state and federal policies related to the social safety net and the economic fallout from Covid-19. The single most popular policy was residential eviction moratoriums, supported by 80 per cent of mayors.

 

Three in four mayors support a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave, while three in five support Medicare for All. Their responses to these policies largely reflect the national divides on them: 90 per cent of Democratic mayors support universal paid sick leave, while only 27 per cent of Republicans expressed support.

 

The survey, named after the late mayor of Boston Thomas Menino and supported by Citi and The Rockefeller Foundation, is an annual project to understand the most pressing needs and policy priorities of America’s mayors from large and mid-size (over 75,000 residents) cities.

 

In total, 130 mayors from 38 states were interviewed throughout the summer of 2020, providing a representative sample of mayors and cities nationally.

 

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