As forces such as globalism, technology, and automation exacerbate a growing national economic divide, the topic of equity has taken on greater prominence in public discussion.
In Silicon Valley’s capital, poverty and its accompanying human suffering amid tremendous regional prosperity is not a new phenomenon. For this reason, we’ve spent the last five years expanding after-school learning for low-income students, providing summer jobs to teens in high-crime neighborhoods, expanding computer science and coding classes for thousands of youth in our libraries, and eliminating financial barriers to college for thousands of our young adults. We’ve lifted the regional minimum wage to $15 per hour, and launched SJ Bridge, a program that employs homeless residents to clean trash in our most blighted areas. We’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build affordable housing, and millions more to prevent homelessness for residents facing eviction. And just last year, we launched the country’s largest digital inclusion fund to bridge the digital divide for 50,000 of our low-income and underserved San Joséans.
Of course, none of that is nearly enough. Poverty persists. Homelessness worsens. Racial disparities in wealth have calcified. Powerful economic forces inflict pain on thousands of families struggling to pay high rents.
During recent budget deliberations, we saw passionate debate about making San José a more equitable community, particularly amid an intensifying housing crisis. I’ve posted a relevant portion of my Council-approved June budget message below (you can also read the entire document here), to explore how we can better integrate equity into our budgetary decision-making, and ensure allocation of services to high-need neighborhoods.
There will continue to be — as there should be — vocal debate about whether we’re allocating City resources equitably; race, generational disparities, and other demographic factors should play a prominent role in that debate. Regardless of our best efforts to optimize budgetary allocations, however, I remain convinced that the City’s most impactful and important work lies in expanding the pie, and not merely in redistributing a pie that will always remain inadequate. Most importantly, we have to redouble our efforts to broaden educational and economic opportunities for low-income families. We’ll continue to focus on improving our allocation of services and resources to our highest-need neighborhoods, but it’s the work around expanding opportunity that will have the most profound impact.
Excerpt from Mayor Sam Liccardo’s June 2019 Budget Message for Fiscal Year 2019–2020.
The word “equity” frequently finds its way into public advocacy, and appropriately so. We live in a Valley increasingly divided by income and wealth, and on a planet where geopolitical, economic, and technological forces deepen our already-substantial disparities.
While our society has many entrenched, systematic injustices — racial, economic, social, ethnic, and gender-based, among others — the responses to those inequities can be even more varied. For some, “equity” means we should ensure that every child has the opportunity to attend college, regardless of family income. Several presidential candidates have proposed single-payer health insurance. Others may have more simple ambitions, such as the provision of more proactive trash and graffiti abatement in low-income neighborhoods.
Of course, not every response — nor the resources required to implement it — lies at our disposal. We live in a world of budgetary limitations, and in a City with legal limitations over its authority. It is tempting to assert, “Silicon Valley has plenty of wealth, and the City should simply redistribute it,” but most of that wealth is headquartered in suburbs beyond our borders. Even within our city limits, City Hall has very limited legal authority to impose the kinds of redistributionist mechanisms — such as income or wealth taxes — that one typically finds within the province of federal or state control. If we did seek to implement such taxes, unhappy employers would simply move down the street to a more tax-friendly city, with counterproductive effect. Given these constraints, how can we meaningfully address the inequity of our City, to better serve those who struggle the most?
Several colleagues have suggested we more equitably allocate our City resources. In an April 11, 2019 memorandum, they call for the creation of an “Equity Fund” to address San José’s historic economic disparities, particularly those attributable to racial discrimination. Manager’s Budget Addendum 19 recommends, in response, that we allocate $430,000 to hire City staff to collect data and conduct analysis, and to further inform and guide the City’s ongoing work with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), which has already engaged 44 of the City’s senior-level staff to provide an equity lens on our daily provision of services to the public.
I commend the City staff who have engaged in the important work of GARE, and support continuing this work at the current levels. However, I decline to add City staff to the effort by augmenting spending to the $430,000 level, for two reasons.
First, other equity-related data work appears well underway that can readily inform our budgeting. For example, for more than a year, we’ve engaged in important data-gathering and statistical analysis of equity and geography in San José through the Social Progress Index, a partnership between the Social Progress Imperative, the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Partnerships, Work2Future, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. San José has become one of the first four U.S. cities to engage in this work with the Social Progress Imperative, a DC-based non-profit that seeks to redefine economic success with a social equity lens, and others are slated to follow. This effort is producing a San José-specific SP Index, a data tool that drills down to individual census tracts to account for dozens of critical variants reflecting the economic and social well-being of residents in each tract. For example, the SP Index includes such factors as household income, access to fresh food, preschool enrollment rates, crime rates, housing overcrowding, homelessness density, linguistic isolation, walkability, obesity prevalence, job skills, housing cost burden, and education levels. Although we entered this partnership to better anticipate and confront the risks of technological automation on residents with limited skills, this data tool appears readily adaptable to much of the analysis that staff anticipates doing on equity more generally.
Action Over Analysis
Second, I would rather focus our scarce resources on “doing” rather than merely “analyzing.” We have limited dollars to provide services to hundreds of thousands of neighbors in need. If other partners, like the Social Progress Imperative, have greater experience and facility with equity-related data analysis, we should leverage their efforts, while focusing our own resources on delivering services to residents. It appears that several of my colleagues share my preference for action over analysis, based on their April 11th memorandum describing their aspirations for an Equity Fund “as a consistent allocation of resources to address disparities” in service provision, and notes that it “would also serve to address quality of life and areas such as language access, service delivery, cultural competency and other factors that have left our most vulnerable communities behind.”
Reasonable minds disagree about the best way to address equity, but all of us should agree that across several City programs areas, high-poverty neighborhoods need greater resources. In some service areas — such as gang prevention, early education, and after-school learning — staff have routinely applied an equity lens to spending decisions. In other areas, we need to do more work.
It’s not clear, however, that we’ll best address this issue with a budgetary line-item labeled “equity.” The creation of a separate fund for “equity” — no matter how large — can have the unintended consequence of relegating equitable considerations to the margin. We don’t have separate budgetary funds for “cost-effectiveness” or “fiscal responsibility,” but those concerns should animate every budgetary decision. Similarly, the entire budget should incorporate a focus on equity. Institutionalizing that focus in our budgetary process requires forging a path for more systemic change.
Using Budget Documents as a Starting Point
In keeping with longstanding tradition, my colleagues submitted 103 budget proposals identifying specific, supplemental city services to address the concerns of their districts’ neighborhoods. Although the word “equity” typically didn’t appear in those budget documents, equity concerns implicitly animated many of the requests, for such varied needs as crime prevention, blight eradication, youth services, and pedestrian safety.
As a starting point, I have “shoe-horned” several of those requests into a broader budgetary direction for our high-need neighborhoods citywide. To these proposals, I added several proposals of my own to address concerns I’ve heard from high-need neighborhoods — such as police foot patrol in Poco Way, park development in Lanai-Tropicana, park planning in Meadowfair, child care in Gardner, and summer learning programs citywide. From all of these, we can cull a set of spending priorities relevant to many high-need neighborhoods, and I used the one-time unexpected dollars in sales tax revenues to allocate additional dollars citywide in several of those categories:
· Education & Opportunity: San José Learns summer programs and early learning/childcare
· Safety: supplemental foot patrol policing, Project Hope neighborhood engagement, sexual assault prevention and enforcement, and pedestrian safety improvements
· Community-Building: neighborhood association support, parks activation (and Project Hope)
· Blight and Beautification: park fields repair, SJ Bridge trash cleanup, tree planting, mural painting, and graffiti abatement
An “Equity Screen” for City Budgeting
In each of these areas, I propose that City staff uses the information and tools provided by the SP Index, GARE, and from other ongoing work to develop an “equity screen” — that is, criteria that will enable a prioritization of neighborhoods by need — to enable appropriate allocation of services to high-need communities.
There’s plenty of precedent for this approach. Cities such as Portland, San Antonio, and Seattle have utilized variants of budgetary equity screens, some more successfully than others. In several programs — such as for distribution of CDBG funding, or SJ Learns services — City staff has already developed extensive budget allocation criteria that incorporate equity. In such instances, the task remains to expose those criteria to Council and public scrutiny. In other budgetary categories, we have work to do to develop those criteria.
This merely constitutes one step toward the broader systems change needed, which will more explicitly integrate equity into our budgetary decision making. That effort requires more time and resources than a single budget cycle can provide, so our work must continue beyond June. Yet equity screens that we develop for each category of city service this year can provide a starting point for systemic integration of an “equity lens” into future years’ budgetary decision making.
Although the criteria will differ based on the city service, several principles should cut across our development of equity screens throughout the budget:
Rely on objective data about need, not simply complaints:
In every city, affluent residents are more vocal about concerns, whether potholes or crime. We certainly shouldn’t hold it against them; their complaints serve to attract necessary attention from the City, and deter criminal activity and blight. Yet the many reasons why some residents may not register a complaint — such as linguistic barriers, immigration status, or lack of digital access — should compel the use of objective measures independent of complaints for identifying needs and targeting resources.
Use a geographically granular approach:
Staff should identify high-need areas by census tract, police beat, or neighborhood, not by council district or zip code: San José is geographically diverse. Low-income residents live within relatively wealthy districts, such as Districts 8 and 10. High-income residents live within relatively lower-income districts, such as Districts 3 and 7. Allocating services to higher-need neighborhoods requires greater granularity than traditional district or even zip code analyses can provide.
Identify proactive, cost-effective service responses:
The City’s efforts to address the upstream factors causing distress in high-need neighborhoods can accomplish far more than merely reacting with palliative measures.
Account for Impact of Income Disparities:
Though stating the obvious, it shouldn’t be overlooked: the City’s service provision should account for those contexts in which the relative affluence of a neighborhood affects residents’ need for services. Parents working two jobs to pay rent have a greater need for affordable after school options for their children. Parking enforcement matters more in neighborhoods where street parking is more scarce, such as around multifamily dwellings. On the other hand, operations of the regional wastewater facility or airport likely won’t share those considerations.
Make it Transparent:
City staff should clearly identify the criteria used within each “equity screen” to enable robust public discussion of what should or should not be considered.
Why Opportunity Still Matters More
Although all of this effort has value, it does not comprise the City’s most meaningful equity-related work. Nor can it — we don’t have a lot of public services or City resources to redistribute as America’s most thinly-staffed big city. Merely reallocating too-thin City resources can have, at best, only a very modest impact. Residents in every neighborhood complain that their community does not receive adequate City services; in fact, they’re all right — we still have about 1,000 fewer City employees providing those services than we had in 2002 when our city had 200,000 fewer residents. We won’t cover our exposed, cold feet merely by cutting one end of the blanket and sewing it on to the other end.
What my colleagues have proposed in their April 11th memorandum is important, but equity requires more: it compels the provision of equality of opportunity.
Our most important work — together with partners in the private and non-profit sectors — lies in more proactively and directly expanding educational and economic opportunity for struggling residents.
Our racial, economic, and social divide appears well illustrated by the fact that Latinx residents comprise more than 30% of residents, yet they constitute only 3% of the professional tech workforce of our Valley companies. This achievement gap has a well-documented source: an opportunity gap that prevents too many of our brightest young people from attaining the skills and education necessary to thrive — or survive — in this Valley. The primary mechanism for creating a more diverse workforce — our public educational system — propels only 30% of freshmen entering a San José public high school to any form of college success, defined as an associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, or certificate. Two-thirds of our kids are left behind in skills attainment in a Valley where college-level skills have increasingly become a necessity.
For decades, San José had the greatest economic mobility of any major city in the United States, according to a 2013 Harvard study by Dr. Raj Chetty. We have ample evidence to question whether we can sustain that legacy for our low-income residents today.
Precisely that work — broadening opportunity for our struggling neighbors — should comprise our greatest focus. It entails helping the breadwinners for thousands of struggling families develop the skills to earn more, and to clear educational pathways for their children to do so.
Of course, that work isn’t new. Much of it started four years ago, as a series of initiatives aligned with the Obama Administration’s “My Brother’s Keeper” framework for creating a cradle-to-career approach to expanding opportunity for children to overcome the barriers of poverty. Since 2015, those initiatives have steadily scaled in scope and impact. Among them:
· San José Learns, a program of extended-day learning for K-3 students in 16 struggling neighborhoods, focuses on basic academic skills. A child unable to read at grade level by the 3rd grade becomes four times more likely to drop out of high school, making it a critical bellwether for future success. More than 3,500 children have participated in San José Learns with $14 million in City, non-profit, corporate, and school district support. This year, with the help of Alaska Airlines, we are expanding San José Learns into the summer, to counter the summer learning loss that afflicts students from low-income families more severely than their peers. The summer program will also feature free meals and physical exercise. I recommend allocating another $500,000 to further expand the summer program for low-income families.
· The 5K Coding Challenge launched in 2018, immersing elementary-aged children — particularly from low-income neighborhoods — into coding and computer science learning experiences at our libraries. Within its first year, with the contributions from companies like KLA and the collaborative efforts of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and San José Public Libraries Foundation, we’ve already exceeded our stretch goal of serving 5,000 students. We will continue to expand the program to reach more kids in 2019–20.
· San José Works has enabled more than 3,200 teens in gang-impacted neighborhoods to obtain a summer or after-school job since its inception in 2015, with the help of Work2Future, the Silicon Valley Organization, and many private sector employers. Over time, we have increased the focus on teens struggling with gang influence and past criminal behavior, requiring more resources for these harder-to-reach kids. Our first fundraising event in May generated more than $250,000 from private sector partners to support the program’s expansion.
· Digital Inclusion Fund resulted from a three-year effort to better identify the barriers to digital access for our residents, including the nearly 100,000 who lack broadband internet service at home. Months ago, we signed agreements with three telecommunications companies that will generate $ 24 million over the next decade for an initiative to bring access, devices, and skills to low-income residents, and we have begun fundraising to supplement those dollars. This year, we will work with the East Side Union High School District to expand our partnership — already providing 6,000 families of James Lick High students with wi-fi enabled access and devices — to families of Overfelt High students.
· The San José College Promise, a partnership with our community colleges, launched in 2017, and now enables more than 1,500 students to attend their first two years of college without paying for fees, books, or tuition. This year, we have begun more aggressive private-sector fundraising that will enable us to expand the Promise to four-year institutions.
We’ve also sought to help adults gain access to better employment and income opportunities, through a series of initiatives including:
· A Regional “Minimum Wage” — In 2015 and 2016, we led a regional effort to increase the minimum wage in several surrounding cities, to encourage them to join San José in bringing the minimum wage to $15 by this year. The wage will increase again next year with inflation.
· San José Public Library & SJPL Works — With the creative leadership of Jill Bourne and her team, and a modest additional budgetary investment, we managed to restore library services to six days per week in every neighborhood. We partnered with San José State University and private sector partners like Robert Half International to transform our libraries into job training centers, providing on-line skill learning for adults and teens.
· Office of Immigrant Affairs — In early 2015, we created this office primarily to enable more adults to take advantage of DACA and DAPA programs to stabilize their status, and to facilitate a pathway to enable more lawful immigrants to obtain citizenship. The role of the office has since shifted and expanded with the change in the national landscape. This year, we plan to bolster the OIA’s work, with a $625,000 budgetary allocation to support census outreach, and this June Budget Message devotes additional resources for voter engagement and GARE.
· Small Business Assistance — In 2015, we launched a program to help small business owners navigate City processes for permits and licenses. Expanding the program — and using City staff fluent in Spanish and Vietnamese — has enabled a focus on the immigrant-led small businesses that comprise more than half of our new employers. Our Small Business Allies have won rave reviews from an important category of customers, small business owners, that have long struggled with city processes to get their businesses up and running. Other programs — launched to fill empty storefronts Downtown during my tenure on the Council — now reduce startup costs for small businesses citywide.
· SJ Bridge (formerly the Transitional Jobs Program) — Since August of last year, we have provided jobs cleaning our streets and public spaces to homeless clients of Downtown Streets Team and Goodwill, creating work-first pathways to self-sufficiency. Initial results appear promising, as several participants have moved on to permanent employment, and many more to permanent housing. Through this budget message and the March Budget Message, we’ll triple the size of the program, with a target of providing jobs to 100 homeless residents.
· New Efforts Underway: Child Care and Construction Labor — Through our March initiative to expand child care, we’ll expand economic opportunity for many low-income parents who can open their own day care businesses at home through training and certification, while giving their working neighbors more affordable care options. In this June message, we’re announcing a partnership with Local 270 Laborers to expand apprenticeships in the building trades, to expand opportunity to more struggling young adults while reducing the key constraint on our affordable housing ambitions — our construction labor shortage.
I’d like to thank all of our community partners and City staff for their collaborative efforts on each of these initiatives, and would particularly like to thank members of my team who have worked incredibly hard to launch, sustain, and grow them, including Khanh Russo, Candace Le, Shireen Santosham, Ingrid Holguin, Paul Pereira, Kelly Kline, and Chris Ratana. We have much more work to do, but we should take a moment to acknowledge what we are collectively doing to lift the opportunities and aspirations for thousands of San José residents.