Cities at Work

Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class

Local governments need to take bold action to restore the middle class and ensure more access to it. Cities are an important and unique solution to many social problems.

Download the summary report here.

Report chapters:

“Cities at Work: Progressive Local Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class” is COWS’s (or the Center on Wisconsin Strategy’s) local government companion to the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s “States at Work: Progressive State Policies to Rebuild the Middle Class” report.

Our report is based on the practical experience and struggle of elected officials and advocates from around the country in moving their communities onto the “high road” of shared prosperity, environmental sustainability, and efficient democratic government. Its goal is to arm progressive local elected leaders and advocates with a range of effective policies that, if adopted, would make a significant difference in getting on that high road. They will be able to use better democratic organization to add value, reduce waste, and capture and share locally the great benefits of doing both.

In the summary of their state report, our colleagues at the Center for American Progress Action Fund made a compelling case for why state and local governments need to take bold action to restore the middle class and ensure more access to it. The basic reason is that, over the past generation, American economic and political inequality has tremendously increased to the point that our status as a democratic society is severely threatened. In this summary of our report, we will assume the truth of that argument. Before getting to the particular policies we recommend for cities, however, we step back to argue that cities are a particularly important, and in many ways unique, solution to these and other social problems.

The distinctive promise of cities

What is the distinctive promise of cities?

First, cities and the metropolitan regions—or “metros”—they anchor are the source of most of the wealth and innovation in America. Our top 100 metros alone, which account for merely 12 percent of total land, are home to two-thirds of our population and account for at least three-quarters of our gross domestic product.

These metros also contain an overwhelming share of our best schools, universities, and research centers; our most critical infrastructure; our largest labor forces; and our most competitive industries of all kinds, including “new economy” industries such as biotech, advanced robotics and instrumentation, digital media, software engineering, and design. Cities aggregate and organize their assets, become more productive, and generate and attract wealth as a result.

Second, well-managed cities are also leaders in global sustainability. Their density allows them to share infrastructure more efficiently, and supports more public goods. As a result, cities generally have much lower greenhouse gas, or GHG, emissions per capita than suburbs and rural areas. New York City, for example, with 8.4 million inhabitants, is more populous than most states but uses less energy than any of them. That’s the efficiency of “natural capital” that we want to see everywhere.

Third, cities are generally more progressive in their values than other areas. Because they rely more on nonmilitary public goods, they are more supportive of those goods. Because they have enormous diversity, they are more welcoming of diversity, including that of the new immigrants that usually enter this country through them. Because their functioning requires accommodation of very different people in close proximity, they are more tolerant of difference. Because they are at the cutting edge of the economy and culture, they are less threatened by the new. Cities are also better organized to advance and defend such values.

For all these reasons—their wealth, their greater sustainability, and their democratic values and organization—cities are the natural pillars of the high-road economy and society that we want to build. That’s their promise.

Joel Rogers is the founder and director of COWS and its multiple projects, including the Mayors Innovation Project, Efficiency Cities Network, State Smart Transportation Initiative, Center for State Innovation, and American Legislative and Issue Campaign Exchange, or ALICE. Satya Rhodes-Conway is a senior associate at COWS and the managing director of the Mayors Innovation Project. 

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