Without Federal Support, Mayors Expect School Budget Cuts, Economic Upheaval for Small Businesses and Commercial Centers, and Deepening Racial Inequality Findings Among Those From the Boston University Initiative on Cities’ Menino Survey of Mayors
Boston, MA, December 3, 2020 – As leaders in Washington continue to be divided over additional stimulus, America’s mayors paint a troubling picture for the future of their cities in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to this year’s Menino Survey of Mayors, the only national representative survey of America’s mayors conducted annually by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities.
Most alarmingly, 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 believe 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. 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, over 80% of mayors expect racial health disparities to widen in the future – they do not expect the attention Covid-19 is bringing to the issues to lead to progress.
“The long-term implications of the pandemic and the nation’s continued struggles with racial injustice are unknown but will no doubt be profound – especially for cities,” said Jamie Alderslade, Director of Impact and Insights for Citi Community Investing and Development and an Initiative on Cities Advisory Board Member. “This year’s Menino Survey is essential reading with valuable new insights from mayors on racial equity, Covid-19, investment in public services, and the very future of America’s cities themselves.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a level of economic devastation that has upended many lives, and Black, Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) continue to face the brunt of this crisis,” said Otis Rolley III, senior vice president of The Rockefeller Foundation’s U.S. Equity and Economic Opportunity Initiative. “The country’s persistent racial inequities have only become worse, and in response, we need to see innovative, transformative solutions that center impacted communities. Mayors are at the forefront of creating change across America’s cities, and the 2020 Menino Survey of Mayors provides the necessary insight needed to pinpoint and address specific challenges brought on by the pandemic.”
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. Only 13% of mayors believe these programs 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%) and loans (28%), along with regulatory relief (30%).
“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,” said DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. “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.”
Nearly all mayors expect Covid-19 to permanently change some resident behaviors like working from home and shopping at stores: 90% expect the shift toward remote work to persist even after a vaccine is available and 60% expect a permanent reduction in in-person retail shopping. Accordingly, they are fearful of the hollowing out of their city centers, with 60% of mayors agreeing that downtown office buildings will become “less desirable” and 40% expecting less transit use in the future. Very few expect shops, restaurants, or transit to return to normal until at least next year, and over one third pushed normalcy back beyond that for each.
“Covid-19 has forced us to rethink what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and it isn’t over,” said Mesa Mayor John Giles. “The Survey shows some of the ways mayors have been tackling the immediate crisis—imploring our constituents to mask up, creating small business support programs, and offering eviction and foreclosure prevention efforts. But we also have an eye down the road. We need to act now to keep people in their homes and keep businesses running if we’re to have vibrant cities in the years and months ahead.”
Mayors did express support (with some polarization) 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% 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% of Democratic mayors support universal paid sick leave, while 27% of Republicans expressed support. The partisan splits for a $15 minimum wage and Medicare for All were similar. Another key finding includes unified support of vote-by-mail, with 91% of mayors in favor of it. This includes 98% of Democrats and 71% of Republican mayors.
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. Additional findings from the 2020 Survey – related to policing and protests and parks and greenspace – will be released as separate reports in the coming months.
The full findings report on Covid-19 recovery and implications can be found here.
About the Initiative on Cities
The Boston University Initiative on Cities catalyzes the social, natural, computational and health sciences to conduct research in, on and with cities in pursuit of sustainable, just, and inclusive urban transformation. Founded by a proven urban leader, the late Mayor of Boston Thomas Menino, and a highly regarded academic, Professor Graham Wilson, the Initiative serves as a bridge between academic research and the real-life practice of city governance. Additional information may be found at www.bu.edu/ioc and at www.surveyofmayors.com.
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The Rockefeller Foundation advances new frontiers of science, data, and innovation to solve global challenges related to health, food, power, and economic mobility. As a science-driven philanthropy focused on building collaborative relationships with partners and grantees, The Rockefeller Foundation seeks to inspire and foster large-scale human impact that promotes the well-being of humanity throughout the world by identifying and accelerating breakthrough solutions, ideas, and conversations. For more information, sign up for our newsletter at rockefellerfoundation.org and follow us on Twitter @RockefellerFdn.
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