American Mayors With Anti-Poverty Agendas

Part 2 of a Six Part Series

Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and an attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute, where she brings a strong commitment to social justice, equity and democracy. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. This column is part of an ongoing PuLSE series about Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s reluctance to confront poverty. For inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-chief of the Institute.

By Tina M. Patterson

With news of a proposed poverty center in a collaboration between Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions Center, The PuLSE Institute took a critical examination of the sincerity and credibility of the effort because of the lack of anti-poverty policy initiatives championed by the Duggan administration.

Furthermore, while we were informed by the Director of UM Poverty Solutions, Luke Schaefer, that there are “no plans for a new poverty effort that we are involved in,” credible sources that are privy to discussions between the university and the administration further highlight the need for clarity in how the city is addressing poverty.

In part one of our series, we highlighted the many ways Mayor Duggan has failed to acknowledge or address the glaring poverty in the city. In fact, Duggan has taken positions against uplifting residents out of poverty such as his reluctance to offer support for increasing minimum wage and his hesitance to declare water a human right. 

However, while some of the administration’s actions dismissing efforts to combat poverty have been despairing and the plans of a possible poverty center seem insincere and deflective at best, hope exists in other major American cities whose mayors have refreshingly declared poverty the enemy. Their actions show a remarkable contrast to what is taking place in Detroit.

They have openly acknowledged the hardships and challenges facing their cities stemming from the root cause of poverty. They have repeatedly emphasized the existence of poverty and its vicious effects as the root of broader social issues such as educational inequality and a racially-biased criminal justice system in need of reform.

Rather than spin their wheels by teaming with elite universities to try to create poverty centers to seek to appease critics and make the demands of anti-poverty policies from struggling and fed up residents go away, these mayors have taken bold steps in using the power of their executive offices to implement broad and bold anti-poverty policies within their cities. Their actions have proven that policies directly focused on lifting residents out of poverty is an answer to combatting poverty, something Mayor Duggan has failed to do in his six years as mayor.

Duggan’s inaction in spelling out very clear and resolute anti-poverty policies, and his unwillingness to even use the word poverty in his public declarations most of the time, have gone unchallenged in the media, whose fawning coverage of his administration and over-simplification of the compounding social issues faced by Detroiters only exacerbate the problems of inequality.

The mayors of other cities highlighted here have not hesitated to use the powers invested in them through their elected offices to implement significant changes in the lives of their neediest residents and have spoken out passionately about what these efforts can do to provide basic services to disadvantaged families living on the margins of society and to directly increase their chances at upwardly social mobility.

Mayor Michael Tubbs

Mayor Michael Tubbs, Stockton CA: $500 Monthly Universal Basic Income for Low Income Residents

The youngest mayor of any major American city, Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs has implemented a universal basic income plan that gives residents living under the median income $500 a month, no strings attached. The pilot program targeted 100 families, with qualifications that the residents must live in neighborhoods where the median annual income is below $46,000. In contrast, the median annual income in the city of Detroit is significantly lower at $27,830, meaning the impact of a universal basic income plan in Detroit would greatly benefit hundreds of thousands more impoverished residents and provide so much needed support to residents struggling to make daily ends meet. 

In discussing the plan, Mayor Tubbs was forthright about its impact and significance in directly assisting families by providing much needed funds for basic services and upwardly mobile opportunities they could not afford otherwise.

“This demonstration is not just about today,” Tubbs said. “It’s about tomorrow, and about what the impact could be for a kid who grows up in a family that — with just $500 a month — is able to stabilize. Not be evicted, or afford books, or afford a science camp, or afford Internet, and what changes that makes for him in his life and his or her trajectory going forward.”

Mayor Tubbs implemented the program earlier this year, still in his first term as mayor, and recipients are already feeling the benefit of the assistance, with one recipient noting that he could now afford to take his daughter to the tutoring she needed. Tubbs is among those leading the national debate against poverty, and while Detroit holds the designation of being the largest city on the poverty index in the nation, the same cannot be said of Duggan.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta, GA: No Cash Bail to Keep Poor in Jail but $1 Billion to Affordable Housing

In Atlanta, a city similar to Detroit with a large black population, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has declared that citizens will not be held in jail unfairly because they don’t have the money to pay. As her first initiative in 2018, just one month after assuming the mayoral office, she signed an ordinance that eliminated the Atlanta Municipal Court’s cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders who otherwise would sit in jail because they could not afford bail. Mayor Lance Bottoms said the old system made no fiscal sense, but also compassionately expressed that, “There are poor people who don’t have resources to get out of jail,” and that they should not be held unfairly just because they don’t have the money for bail.

This measure is a stark contrast to Detroit, where earlier this year, the ACLU sued Detroit’s 36th District Court, in a 66-page lawsuit that argued the cash bail system currently in place is unconstitutional and punishes and discriminates against poor people who cannot afford to bail themselves out of jail. To this date, nothing in the public record suggests Mayor Duggan has fully supported the lawsuit or its goal of eliminating punishment for poverty through systemic reform.

Additionally, Mayor Lance Bottoms recently announced a $1 Billion citywide affordable housing plan to combat rising housing costs and the displacement of longtime residents. The plan aims to build 20,000 affordable housing units by 2026 with funding coming from public, private, and philanthropic sources. In a release about the plan, the mayor noted that “Affordability is the foundation of any livable and thriving community,” and that “creating and preserving affordable housing is critical to the future of all those who call Atlanta home.” And while here in Detroit, Mayor Duggan introduced an Affordable Housing Fund, it is significantly less funding that will build and preserve half of what has been introduced in Atlanta, a city with far less poverty than Detroit.

Mayor London Breed, San Francisco, CA: Income Assistance and Affordable Housing as a Right

During her first state of the city speech earlier this year, San Francisco Mayor London Breed focused on three main challenges facing the city: homelessness, mental health, and affordable housing. However, while she detailed the significance of these issues, she specifically stated that the city must confront the root causes in order to prevent them from happening in the future, which she directly stated meant addressing poverty and inequality. As an example, she noted that while working with the Public Defender and Treasurer, San Francisco became the first city in the country to eliminate punitive, wasteful court fines and fees, which she said “did nothing more than drive people into poverty or, worse, back into prison.”

She also announced a charter Amendment to make all affordable housing and teacher housing as-of-right in San Francisco. As she boldly declared during the speech, “If an affordable housing or teacher housing project is proposed within zoning, then build it. And build it now. No more bureaucracy. No more costly appeals. No more not in my neighborhood. It’s simple: Affordable housing as-of-right because housing affordability is a right.”

Further, while only in office for just over one year, she has instituted policy changes to back this bold agenda. Recently, she announced a nearly $10 million dollar cash assistance program to low income residents, which she included in her fiscal budgets over the next two years. Under this program, approximately 4,700 low income adults without dependent children would receive monthly cash assistance to help those experiencing homelessness, dealing with disabilities, and securing employment.

Mayor Breed acknowledged the expensive cost of living in San Francisco and stated that the increased cash assistance could “make the difference between someone having enough to eat or going hungry.” She also noted that the significance of the increase in funding meant “people can afford everyday things like food, toiletries, and medications, while we also connect them with the services they need, like housing placements, education, and jobs.”

Finally, unlike Detroit and Mayor Mike Duggan, who ambitiously pursued the Amazon Second Headquarters, an effort led by Quicken Loans billionaire founder Dan Gilbert, Mayor Breed was not interested in securing the coveted project, stating that she had enough to worry about, including her focus on homelessness and affordable housing. While Detroit has similar issues, it heavily recruited the Amazon project only to be rejected in the first round of bids because it did not have sufficient talent pool and transit, both issues that stem from the poverty and inequality the city routinely ignores.

Mayor Duggan can learn from the bold leadership of these anti-poverty mayors

Mayor Tubbs, Mayor Lance Bottoms, and Mayor Breed have demonstrated that all it takes to initiate such significant change is honest compassion for the neediest constituents and the political will to do something about it. They did not wait for permission from established political or civic leaders or the right political timing to announce their plans. Instead, each of them went to work immediately by instituting new policy changes that directly combat the poverty and inequality that threatens the vibrancy and quality of life in their cities. 

From cash assistance to universal basic income to ending cash bail, these mayors have boldly implemented plans to put money into the hands of its neediest citizens, rather than further entrapping them in the cycle of poverty. Rather than bowing to major employers, developers, and corporations, they have challenged these traditional power brokers by boldly asking what will they do to invest in the city beyond shoring up their profit margins.

Most impressively, all of these mayors have accomplished these bold, significant structural changes within their first term in office. Mayor Duggan on the other hand, is in his second term and has been mayor of Detroit for six years, but has grappled with even admitting the existence of poverty in his city, let alone introducing meaningful policies intentionally directed at combatting the pervasive poverty running rampant in Detroit.

With no signature plan of action to combat poverty in Detroit, Mayor Duggan can learn from and follow the lead of these mayors. Their bold anti-poverty declarations have not been simply lip service to appease critics or partnerships with major universities to quell community concerns. Rather, they have taken action through sincere structural changes that are directly focused on tackling poverty and inequality both immediately and in the long run. Ranging from cash in the hands of low income residents to rejecting major employers who seek tax breaks and offer nothing to the city in return, these mayors have not bowed down to the corporate elites or naysayers who dismiss helping needy residents is nothing more than a handout.

Despite the narrative of the great recovery, the poverty hanging over the city is too much to ignore. If Duggan is going to successfully retain his position as mayor of the largest poverty city in Detroit, he must do what he has failed to do in his six years as mayor: abandon politics as usual and introduce radical change to uplift the hundreds of thousands of Detroit residents living in poverty. Doing so would only serve and benefit his legacy, the lives of thousands, and the future of the city. 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.