Have City Finances Recovered?

At the release event for NLC’s annual City Fiscal Conditions, it was revealed that although the worst is behind, city finances have not yet reached full recovery.

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Most accounts of the current state of economic and fiscal health go something like this: stabilizing but not yet returned to pre-recession levels. The media guys (and gals) hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much of a story when all we are seeing is incremental change. But when you think about persistently stagnant growth, the real question becomes, how far are we from full recovery?

At a release event today for NLC’s annual City Fiscal Conditions, it was revealed that although the worst is behind, city finances have not yet reached full recovery.

The cost and demands of services, pension, healthcare and infrastructure are on the rise. Federal aid and accompanying mandates are in flux and create uncertainty for local governments. Revenue options are constrained by economic conditions, state limitations and political culture.

Compounding these fiscal stresses are new demographic trends, housing and labor market changes, and the rise of new and disruptive industries, all of which underscore the misalignment between traditional revenue sources — property, income and sales taxes –and the economic activity that drives them.

So, how do we know how far city budgets are from full recovery? What are the key vital signs of city fiscal health?

The outlook of city finance officers, general fund revenues, workforce and personnel, and ending balances offer a unique window into recovery at the local level.

Outlook of City Finance Officers

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In 2014, 80% of city finance officers report that they are better able to meet the financial needs of their community this year than last. In fact, more city finance officers report a positive outlook this year than in the 29-year history of the survey.

On the flip side, this finding also means that 80% of cities across the country were worse off last year, indicative of magnitude of the recession and the depths to which cities sank throughout the recessionary period.

General Fund Revenues

General fund revenues grew modestly in 2013, and were the first post-recession year over year growth in revenues. However, revenues are projected to stagnate as cities close the books on 2014.

Chart 2 2006 base year-02

To gain more perspective on how the general fund revenues are faring pre and post-recession, we created an index using 2006 as the base year. 2006 was the pre-recession peak in revenues, the low came in 2012 when revenues were 88% of 2006 levels.

The first post-recession increase in revenues didn’t come until 2013 but in 2014 are still only projected to be around 90% of the 2006 revenue base.

Revenues are not yet at full recovery and the growth in revenues appears to be stagnating.

Tax graph-03

Another window in general fund revenues is to take a closer look at the drivers of the general fund: property, sales and income taxes.

During the recent recession, all three sources of tax revenue declined together due to the severity and length of the recession. Property tax revenue is anticipated to increase slightly in 2014 as collections catch up with improvements in the real estate market. This will be the first increase coming out of the recession.

Sales tax and income tax revenues continue to grow in 2013, but are projected to slow as cities close the books on fiscal year 2014. This is indicative not only of a harsh winter, but also the type of employment recovery we are seeing, with low wage jobs dominating growth.

Municipal Workforce

Speaking of jobs, throughout the recession, many cities implemented some combination of personnel and workforce-related cuts, including hiring freezes and layoffs, in an effort to reduce costs.

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The good news: for the first time post-recession, more cities are increasing rather than decreasing the size their municipal workforces. The bad news: in the context of returning to full recovery, there are still ½ million fewer local government jobs today than there were in 2008.

This is particularly troublesome given the state of the mid-wage and mid-skill jobs crisis we are experiencing today.

Ending Balances

Ending Balances, or reserves, provide a financial cushion for cities to help balance budgets or to use toward a major planned project. Bond underwriters also look at a city’s reserves as an indicator of how likely the city is to make good on its debt.

Ending balance chart-02

Ending balances are on a positive trajectory, at almost 22% of expenditures in 2013. Prior to the recession, ending balances hovered around a high of 25% of expenditures, indicating that reserves have not yet hit pre-recession levels.

So, as we take stock key city fiscal vitals, we are starting to see city finances turn the corner coming out of the recession, but as revenues, workforce, and ending balances indicate, they have not yet returned to full recovery.

For first time since the recession, general fund revenues are increasing, but are projected to stagnate in 2014. More cities are hiring, helping to close the mid-wage, mid-skill gap, but we are still ½ million jobs away from pre-recession levels. Ending balances are showing a positive trajectory, but again, still have not caught up.

Cities were at the forefront of the Great Recession and are making their way back through tough choices, innovation and partnerships with the private sector, nonprofits, and others. Given persistent constraints on city budgets, however, the future is anything but certain.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

More than money: Alternative incentives that benefit companies and communities

Construction in Raleigh, N.C.

Post adapted from Smart Incentives

Specialized services can complement financial incentives, while taking the concept of a partnership between business and community to a new level. Guest blogger Swati Ghosh, the International Economic Development Council‘s Director of Research and Technical Assistance, reports below on an interesting new paper addressing these and other alternative incentives.

Of all the tools that economic developers use to attract businesses to their community, incentives are the most controversial. Typically financial in nature, incentives are direct subsidies to businesses in the form of tax breaks, loans or grants. Proponents maintain that such subsidies are necessary to grow jobs locally as they reduce the cost, or risk, of doing business in a community. Critics, on the other hand, argue that there is no direct link between economic activity and such business subsidies, and some even suggest that they are a drag on economic growth.

Economic developers should closely follow an emerging alternative – programs and services that assist businesses but are not direct financial subsidies. Termed alternative incentives, these are investments in community programs that strengthen the business climate or that help a particular business in a way that benefits the broader community. They are a win-win: For businesses, alternative incentives can reduce the cost or risk of doing business in a community, yet communities retain these investments even if a firm shuts down or relocates to a different community.

IEDC’s Economic Development Research Partners program has developed a new paper focusing on alternative incentives. It is not an argument against the use of financial incentives; rather, it advocates for increased use of alternative incentives either alone or in conjunction with financial incentives. The paper, “More than Money: Alternative Incentives that Benefit Companies and Communities” (PDF), examines five categories of alternative incentives:

  • Talent/Workforce development
  • Real estate and permitting
  • Research and data
  • Networking and promotion
  • Infrastructure improvements

The paper is based on a survey of the IEDC membership to understand usage of over 40 different types of alternative incentives. It also includes several examples of organizations that have successfully utilized alternative incentives for business attraction and expansion, alone or in conjunction with other financial incentives. The paper concludes with recommendations for ways that economic developers can use alternative incentives effectively:

  • Focus on building relationships
  • Examine your organization’s strengths and utilize them creatively
  • Offer a wide spectrum of services
  • Bring along the key stakeholders
  • Focus on the needs of the community

As scrutiny, clawback provisions and other restrictions on the use of financial incentives increase, it may be beneficial to examine other options to support businesses. Alternative incentives not only stay in the community, but bring less of a burden in terms of monitoring and legal costs – benefits that every community and EDO can agree on.

90 Years of Helping City Leaders Improve the Local Business Climate

Seattle, Washington“How does a city government work with local industries, businesses, and institutions to keep them in the city and improve communications with them?” This crucial question was raised by Mayor Sam Schwartzkopf of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a 1968 article in NLC’s previously published Nation’s Cities magazine titled “You Have to Work to Keep Industry.” In today’s economic climate, the issue of business retention and expansion remains a prominent issue for city leaders and economic developers.

While many mayors and city councils across the country recognize the value of attracting new industries and businesses, there is also a growing emphasis on fostering local talent and supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Mayor Schwartzkopf suggested back in 1968 that NLC members should consider adopting a city program he launched in Nebraska to personally visit local shops and companies and ask how the city can be of service to them. The Mayor and his team aimed to meet with as many of the city’s 300 firms as possible.

“Although the attraction of new firms and industries to any community is always extremely important, I feel that city government today must show its present industries that city government is deeply interested in them and that city government wants them to be interested in their city,” Schwartzkopf wrote in his article. “I strongly feel that city government must know what its industrial, business, and institutional leaders are thinking; what they would like to see done within the city.”

Some of the business assistance that Mayor Schwartzkopf provided as a result of his visits included providing increased police presence to an outlying industrial neighborhood, removing street parking to help reduce traffic congestion, modernizing street lighting, and dispatching city engineers to inspect the quality of a storm sewer near a steel company.

This type of support for the local business community is very similar to what we see today from cities involved in NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business network. Our recent report on small business development highlights two key strategies for developing a business-friendly climate – proactively engaging the local business community and creating advisory councils with representation from small business.

As we highlight in the report, the city of Seattle’s Business Retention and Expansion Program (BREP) strives to retain and grow early-stage business through proactive outreach initiatives. The city staff who lead BREP aim to provide 250 businesses with direct assistance every year. The Seattle program has already helped hundreds of businesses find funding opportunities, select new site locations, and navigate government regulations.

In Cincinnati, the city formed a Small Business Advisory Committee (SBAC) as a mechanism for the local small business community to advise city officials on policies and programs. The SBAC voices the concerns of business owners and works in collaboration with city officials to find solutions to common problems. One of the city’s accomplishments since the establishment of the SBAC has been to streamline the permitting process by creating “jump teams” of city employees that work in coordination to assist small businesses.

While the economic landscape has evolved in many ways since 1968, Mayor Schwartzkopf from Lincoln knew back then what remains important today: getting the business friendly basics right is critical to supporting and growing local businesses. NLC is grateful to still be providing research, education and best practices about how cities can do just this.

Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling Likely to Affect Local Government

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The Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling should be viewed through the lens of public employment and contracts not just public universities.

In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action the Supreme Court held 6-2 that voters may by ballot prohibit affirmative action in public universities admission decisions.  While this case was limited to the use of race in public university admission decisions, Michigan’s constitutional amendment also prohibits the use of racial-preference in state and local government employment and contracting.

Presumably, these provisions are also constitutional.  As NCSL’s Affirmative Action:  State Action chart describes, a number of states prohibit the use of affirmative action in local government employment and contracting.

In 2003 in Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court held that public universities may consider race in admission decisions.  In 2006 Michigan voters adopted a constitutional amendment which prohibited preferential treatment in admission to public universities on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The majority of the Court held this amendment does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  Justice Kennedy, in a plurality opinion joined only by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, concluded that this case is about who and not how the debate over racial preferences should be resolved.  “There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.”

In reaching this holding Justice Kennedy rejected a broad reading of past precedent that any state action with a “racial focus” that makes it “more difficult for certain racial minorities than for other groups” to “achieve legislation that is in their interest” is subject to strict scrutiny.

Justice Kennedy pointed to numerous practical problems with this so-called “political process” doctrine including:  assuming that all individuals of the same race think alike; defining race-based categories in a society where “those lines are becoming more blurred;” and determining which policy realms racial groups have a political interest.

Justices Scalia and Thomas agreed that the ballot measure was constitutional but would have overruled the precedent that Justice Kennedy read narrowly.  For the first time since she joined the Court in 2009, Justice Sotomayor read a summary of her dissent, which Justice Ginsberg joined, from the bench—signaling her displeasure with the Court’s decision.

Justice Breyer provided the sixth vote in favor of the amendment but wrote separately; Justice Kagan did not participate in the case.

While those for and against the ballot measure disagree about the wisdom of the Court’s decision, both agree that it will only be a matter of time until more states follow Michigan’s lead.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

WUF7: Final Thoughts on My Week in Medellin

This is the seventh post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to a tour of the city of Medellin, the trip would have been worth it. This is truly a city on the rise. Gone is the violence and narco-terror for which the city was famous. In its place is a young, vibrant city filled with new libraries and schools serving some of the poorest neighborhoods; parks that include concert halls, a planetarium and computer learning centers; and a metro system that runs the length and width of the city, employing traditional rail cars, cable cars and escalators.

Its town center or “el Centro” is filled with the wonderful and massive sculptures of Fernando Botero, a Medellin native, whose work is wonderfully sardonic and sarcastic at the same time, and includes a small gem of a museum that proudly displays Colombia’s pre-Columbian, colonial and modern artists. Its neighborhoods are diverse and reflective of a city that is growing but retaining a “small town” feel. Looking out over the city at night from a bar atop the Charlee Hotel in the Poblado, one can feel the pulsating rhythms of this increasingly successful business center.

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to participation in the mayor’s roundtable on urban equity and the new urban agenda, the trip also would have been worth it. This was truly a roundtable that demonstrated the optimism that exists among city leaders from around the world to create “cities of opportunity” — cities where the poorest and most disadvantaged are able to take advantage of what their city has to offer so they can create a better life for themselves and their families.

As I reported in my fourth and fifth blogs, in its broadest sense, the message of the mayors forum was cities are on the rise as economic centers, centers of innovation and centers of learning — what we have chosen to call “cities of opportunity” — and that cities are replacing individual states and nations as the places in which “real change is taking place.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to attending the various “dialogues” that focused on city resiliency and financing, the trip also would have been worth it. For here the conversations focused on how to finance cities, and how to build cities that can respond to and come back from natural and man-made disasters, but not just for the benefit of the few, but in a way that promotes inclusion and social equity.

Though the solutions that were offered are costly, what was clear is that to do nothing would be even more costly. And though it is much easier to make decisions from the top down, or to make investments that benefit the wealthiest residents, for a city to thrive and grow, every resident must be included in the decision making process, regardless of their income or social standing, and every citizen must be viewed as a likely beneficiary of the investments made.

As Michael Cohen, a professor at the New School (New York) said, it is no longer feasible to operate the way Buenos Aires and New York City have operated until now, where 60 percent of the expenditures benefit the wealthiest 11 percent of the population. “If our cities are to be financially sustainable we must find ways to effectively leverage our resources to the benefit of all.”

Had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to hearing Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economics professor and Nobel laureate, speak passionately about the need for national and local governments to take meaningful steps to end inequality and create opportunity through investments in education, job creation and small business, the trip would have been worth it. Had it been limited to hearing Leon Krier, the famous and highly controversial architect, urban planner and architectural theorist, the trip would have been worth it. His desire to create urban environments that are inclusive but limited in size, and therefore more humane in scale, rang true as we sat in the midst of a city whose one-time modest scale has given way to skyscrapers as far as the eye can see.

Finally, had my trip to the World Urban Forum been limited to visiting the exhibit hall and witnessing what nations and cities around the world are doing to address inequality and create cities of opportunity – from Barcelona to Jerusalem, Guangzhou to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires to Paris – the trip would have been worth it.

But in fact, this trip to the World Urban Forum 7 and Medellin, Colombia, was worth it for reasons that transcended each of its parts. It was a place for people from around the world to exchange ideas and learn from one another. It was a place where creativity was acknowledged and innovation rewarded. It was a place where one’s status as part of the developed or developing worlds did not seem to matter – everyone had something important to offer.

And it was a place that confirmed what we at the National League of Cities have long stated: cities are the laboratories of innovation and creativity, and the solutions to the world’s urban settlement problems will not happen because of national government. Rather, the solutions will emerge at the local level through the commitment of mayors and other local officials, private sector leaders who share the goal of creating “cities of opportunity,” as well as foundations, non-governmental organizations and universities.

This conference left no doubt: if those who live and work in cities are able to come together to create inclusive, resilient and financially sustainable cities, then the urban future is a very bright one, indeed.

Neil Bomberg

About the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Highlighting Advances in City Policy for Disconnected Youth

The annual member’s forum of the National Youth Employment Coalition serves as a hothouse of ideas for advancing young people through work and education, in the face of the ongoing youth jobs deficit and dropout crisis.

This year, three cities’ approaches to better policy and practice for disconnected youth stand out for their breadth and inventiveness. After ten years of policy attention to disconnected youth, perhaps this marks the beginning of a solid wave of broad citywide stage-setting and improved resource allocation and alignment. Which city will “catch the wave” next?

  • In San Diego, the regional Workforce Partnership has incorporated a focus on dropout reengagement in its current request for proposals for youth case management services funded under the Workforce Investment Act. As with the Los Angeles reengagement network of 16 reengagement centers, San Diego’s approach has a high potential for sustainability and for links to jobs, because it blends federal workforce funds with ongoing activities of the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD). For a target group of “youth who are at-severe risk of dropout or who have dropped out of school…the funded proposer will partner with SDUSD to expand their dropout recovery efforts and enhance supports provided to those students who are at severe risk of dropout due to chronic absences, credit deficiency, low reading and math skills and English language proficiency.”
  • In San Francisco, Mayor Edwin Lee commissioned the Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families led a 16-month effort to update the city’s policy framework and objectives for Transition-Age Youth (TAY). In a process thoroughly informed by youth voices and vetted by numerous other participating city agencies, the document sets out baseline conditions and establishes measurable objectives for improving transitions for the 8,000 transition-age youth in need of additional supports in the city. An appendix offers a glance back at the path-breaking 2007 recommendations of the Mayor’s Transitional Youth Task Force (one-third of whom are youth) and a sample letter from the mayor that other cities could readily adapt to launch the policy development process among city agencies.
  • In Boston, now undergoing its first mayoral transition in 20 years, advocates and service providers from three coalitions focused on disconnected/opportunity youth came together to develop recommendations for the incoming Walsh Administration.   The brief document highlights ways the new mayor can lead to connect the city’s 12,000 youth and young adults who are not progressing in school and who are not employed. Nontraditional yet plausible roles for Mayor Martin J. Walsh include leading on development of postsecondary and career pathways, expanding alternative education options and supports, and appointing a school superintendent who will maintain a focus on recovering out-of-school youth. Expanding employment options for high school students and disconnected youth makes the short list as well.

Andrew Moore
About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.  Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

WUF7: The Mayors Forum Part II — Individual City Solutions

This is the fifth post in a series of blogs on the World Urban Forum 7 in Medellin, Colombia.

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In my previous blog, I wrote that the focus of the Mayors Forum was on inclusiveness in order to create a “city of opportunity.” However, I would be misleading you if I implied that each mayor was striving to create a “city of opportunity” in the same way. What they shared was an outcome. How they got there very much depended on how developed, how democratic and how wealthy the city is.

This was exemplified by the diversity of approaches for creating a city of opportunity. Some focused on transportation, others on broader infrastructure, others on job creation, others on education, and still others on public spaces, and for most, a combination of different strategies was necessary. But two things did seem to underlie their approaches regardless of the strategy: inclusiveness and money.

The mayor of Barcelona, Spain underscored this when he said, “We can have the noblest ideas, but if we do not have the financial resources to draw upon, there is nothing that we can do to change our cities and create opportunities for our residents.” He called on national and state governments to respect the work that cities do by ensuring that cities have the resources they need to be a city of opportunity. And the mayors of Medellin, Colombia and Asker, Norway reiterated the importance of involving all residents in the decision-making process and not just the rich or advantaged.

In Santiago de Chile, this process enabled the city to move forward with the development of an adequate urban mass transit system. Prior to development of this system, the city and its residents were supporting the 30 percent with cars, while the rest had to make it on their own. Once the city came together to discuss a solution to the problem of moving its residents from home to work and school, they were able to reach agreement that there needs to be a transportation system, including roads and mass transit, that provides 100 percent of the population with access to everything the city offers.

In Nanjing, China, the focus has been on building a metro system that will serve the poorest sections of the city. While not sharing the deliberative process that led to this decision, the mayor did note that if they failed to create a system that benefited the poorest, the city would remain divided and the poorest residents would have no opportunities to access education, jobs and important social services.

And the mayor of Medellin, Colombia, chimed in by underscoring yet again the importance of his city’s metro system to the least advantaged residents of Medellin, and how important it has been to ensuring that they can get to work, to school and to the services they need. “We were able to transform a two-hour or more commute by bus and foot from the most remote sections of the city into a 45-minute commute to the downtown. In this way we were able to give our residents back two and one-half hours of their day, and increase their happiness.”

In Delft, Netherlands and Budapest, Hungary, the opportunities provided by effective transportation networks were already there; what was lacking was the ability for many of the residents to enter the job market because the skills they had were not the ones local businesses wanted. Delft’s strong technology sector, a driver of job creation, was limited in its ability to absorb unskilled workers. To address this, the city entered into agreements with construction companies, service providers and others who hire lower skilled workers, requiring that they first hire local unemployed residents before recruiting from elsewhere.

Budapest, a city with low relatively low unemployment, still faced enormous employment issues. Long term unemployed residents were not being hired, and young people were also not being incorporated into the workforce. In response, the city set up its own public works program for low skilled workers and worked in partnership with local businesses to ensure that long-term unemployed workers were considered for jobs; and if they were not hired, the city would step in with high-skilled opportunities. The same was done for the city’s youth.

For some of the mayors, there could be not hope of creating a city of opportunity unless the city was safe. In Johannesburg, South Africa and Gombo, Congo, the latter having just been torn apart by a civil war where young people were often soldiers, the response could not simply be having more police. Efforts to move the youth away from violence required their complete engagement in each city’s development, so that the young people saw a future for themselves in the city in which they live.

Finally, many of the mayors spoke of the need for accessible and meaningful open spaces, and educational systems that included pre-school and after-school programs.

But all of this came down to one issue for each of these mayors, and that was the creation of a city filled with opportunity, where every resident feels a part of the city, has pride in their city, and benefits from being part of the city. As the mayor of Medellin put it, “We want every resident to be happy; to feel good about where he or she lives, and to benefit from every aspect of life that the city has to offer.” Something every United States mayor wants for their residents as well.

Dropout Reengagement Extends Reach in 2013, Pursues New Heights in 2014

At its second national meeting in 2012, the NLC Dropout Reengagement Network set out a number of ambitious goals for itself. These included extending the outreach of the Network further; creating a sense of urgency around the need for reengagement; continuing peer learning; informing federal policy; providing students a voice; and demonstrating impact through narrative and numbers. One year has passed, and the Network can point to accomplishments on all these fronts! But before I dive into that good news, consider this vignette from Boston – the city that hosted our first Network convening two short years ago.

April Mae Smith dropped out of Madison High School in May, 2012. April briefly enrolled in the Re-Engagement Center (REC) to earn enough credits to become a senior that fall. But her heart wasn’t in it and she quickly dropped out, moved to Rhode Island to live with her boyfriend, started doing drugs, became pregnant and ended up homeless. Fortunately this interlude was relatively brief, and by fall 2012, April was looking for a way to turn things around so she could provide a better life for herself and her child. “I decided I wanted to graduate before my son was born,” says April, now 19. When April returned to school, she again turned to the REC. She delivered her son this June and about the same time, earned her diploma from the Boston Adult Technical Academy. Now she is enrolling in nursing school with assistance from REC staff. She credits the program with helping her get back on track. “The REC staff always told me if I needed help, to just ask,” April says. “I learned a lot more there than what I would have learned in the classroom. When I graduated, I was one of the top students.”

With that shining story of personal progress in mind, the Network’s 2013 convening in Los Angeles now opens — extending participation and purpose beyond reengagement to and through college, thanks to co-sponsoring partnerships with the National Youth Employment Coalition (NYEC) and Zero Dropouts. Once again, the number of self-financed participants in the convening has doubled, such that what was a Network is now on the verge of becoming a movement.

This is not just a year of accomplishments; this is a year of clarifying nationwide results and impact. Network members reached agreement around a few common measures, and voluntarily submitted data compiled by NLC interns and Matt Mendoza of the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC). We learned that centers in 14 cities made initial outreach to more than half of those on dropout lists.  More than 10,000 young people received referrals to education options from a reengagement center or program, and for 6,000 of those youth, centers received confirmation of enrollment. Of those enrolled, 73 percent completed a full additional year of school or graduated.

In addition to recruiting the national meeting co-sponsors, we looked for strategic outreach and leveraging opportunities. This led to reengagement discussions at high policy levels in the U.S. Department of Education and with members of the rapidly growing Gateway to College National Network. Education Week chose reengagement as the topic for a special pull-out section, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation provided just-in-time support for publication of the new NLC Municipal Action Guide on reengagement, released this week and already drawing media interest.

The Network continues to grow from the ground up, thanks in large part to ample practice sharing. Chicago launched three reengagement centers. Washington State’s Open Doors initiative grew from 3 to 22 programs. Washington, DC commissioned a feasibility study, and plans to launch its center in April, 2014. The California Assembly formed a Select Committee on Addressing Out of School, Unemployed Youth, and in Congress, Rep. Jared Polis’ office completed drafting of the first ever federal reengagement bill – suitable to serve as an amendment to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

As the Network and new partners gather in Los Angeles, opportunities abound to discuss where to go next. One focus area to carry over from last year and build upon: propelling former dropouts forward into options to gain postsecondary credentials. A perennial issue involves using the demand for reengagement to drive creation of many more high quality school completion options. And the “new GED” and GED alternatives waiting around the corner in 2014 surely pose challenges for the broader “ecosystem” of alternative education.

Yet the past three years show that this is a Network that constantly reaches for new heights. So with those heights in mind, I look forward to pursuing these questions:

• What shall the Network do to advance the federal policy ideas built into the draft Polis legislation?

• What other states could emulate Washington and spread reengagement programs via state policy and local determination? (Massachusetts, Oregon, California – are you in the house?)

• What city or district – or coalition of districts – in partnership with Community-Based Organizations, will reprogram resources to expand alternative schools rapidly?

• Who will follow Los Angeles’ inspiration with the Workforce Incentive Fund, to identify and use a federal funding source to expand reengagement locally?

• How will we sustain the census of reengagement programs, and continue to add precision to our counting of results?

* Are the more experienced members of the Network ready for an external evaluation of their effectiveness and impact?

• How will the 21 cities involved in the high-profile Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund tackle the need for reengagement capacity?

• What other philanthropies will join the CS Mott and Annie E. Casey Foundations to lend their support to advance reengagement nationwide?

Andrew Moore
About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families.  Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

Getting to One Million – and Beyond

Last week’s initial meeting of the Opportunity Youth Network, a group of funders, corporations, the National Council of Young Leaders, and national organizations including NLC, provided an opportunity to confront a pressing national challenge:  how to reconnect one million of  the nation’s seven million “opportunity youth” with education and employment over the next two years.  Opportunity youth, which NLC has typically referred to as disconnected youth, constitute those young adults ages 16-24 who are out of school and out of work.

When thinking about “getting to one million,” the math may seem daunting.  How can national, regional, and local efforts add up to one million in the span of two years when at present national program networks such as youth corps, YouthBuild, and Job Corps – all built up over three-plus decades — likely reconnect at most 100,000 youth and young adults per year. We’re talking about an order-of-magnitude shift here.

  • The first 100,000 youth – a 10 percent down payment on the goal — could reconnect through the momentum provided by plans to launch a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a partnership initiative propelled by the secretaries of the Departments of Interior and Agriculture as well as leadership of the EPA and other federal agencies that support conservation and historic preservation.
  • The 20 cities that are part of the Opportunity Youth Incentive Fund could take collective responsibility for reconnecting another 100,000 youth over the next two years.
  • Corporate partners involved with the Opportunity Youth Network, along with partners such as mayors, workforce boards, service corps, and community action agencies could target their resources to providing initial employment experiences for 50,000 – 100,000 youth per year.
  • A consortium of well-endowed universities could follow the inspiration of Tulane University President Scott Cowen to develop work and education pathways, perhaps in tandem with local community colleges, for another 50,000 youth.

With these four proposals, we’re at 300,000 – 350,000, well over the 25 percent mark.  But none of the above will be possible without a substantial re-allocation of resources. Now seeking ideas from colleagues and young people nationwide to keep the numbers aggregating to one million…or more. Provide your ideas in the comments section or email me at moore@nlc.org.

P.S. Behind the math rests the parallel challenge of defining “reconnection” in a way that is meaningful, rigorous, and achievable.  It’s not easy for anyone to sustain permanent labor market connections these days, much less young people just starting out.  So perhaps it will be sufficient to “count” paid work experiences lasting at least three to six months as evidence of reconnection.

Similarly, we need an education measurement, perhaps one that captures finishing a high school level credential or taking the first steps toward a postsecondary credential.  To smooth over the inevitable bumps of early adulthood, could reconnection also involve a new legion of mentors, trained to develop and sustain one-on-one supportive relationships?  I await the discussion, eagerly.

Andrew Moore

About the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families.  Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

Can Cities Survive on Love Alone?

Although For the Love of Cities by Peter Kageyama was published in 2011, the book, concept and author have been gaining popularity recently by a breadth of cities and city-loving organizations.

Kageyama calls for city leaders to take on the task of giving “love notes” to the community. Yes, that right, love notes or emotional capital, in the form of parks, arts, open space, local culture, play, walkable spaces. These create emotional connections and attachment between people and their cities.

It is certainly well documented that a thriving quality of life, or “lovability” as the case may be, supports growth and helps people feel attached to their communities.

But in the context of what this means for local governments, is Kageyama’s “lovability” theory the answer cities have been waiting for? Can cities survive on love alone? Here’s my take.

Lovability is not a silver bullet. Although coffee shops, dog parks and cultural events are critical to retaining and attracting residents and businesses, “lovability” is not a sufficient condition to bolster economic growth and retain/attract talent in places that are truly struggling.

A community needs a baseline level of economic health and employment opportunity before quality of life becomes a driving force, i.e. no amount of dog parks can solve Detroit’s underlying economic challenges.

This isn’t to say struggling cities shouldn’t strive to enhance quality of life/lovability, but they need to do it along-side the difficult work of addressing critical challenges like economic development, workforce skills, infrastructure and youth violence.

Chelsea mich clock tower

Chelsea, MI is a case in point for the mutual support that can exist between “love notes” and functional services. Nearly 30 years ago, the downtown association, elected officials, community banks, Chamber of Commerce, small business owners, and regulatory departments worked together to fully invest in returning its rundown downtown as the epicenter of the community. The catalyst for attracting storefronts – love notes, in the form of the the Purple Rose Theatre Company and a local restaurant.
The partnership tapped Chelsea native and long-time resident, actor/musician Jeff Daniels, who founded the nonprofit theater Purple Rose. The restaurant, the Common Grill, was given space to open in an old vacant department store in the middle of the downtown. The theater and restaurant not only enhanced local culture and attachment, but brought patrons into downtown and allowed for pedestrian traffic in other shops.

Create a culture of authentic engagement. Cities can do much to create lovability and attachment, but more important, how can cities tap this attachment for authentic civic engagement that drives change in the community?

Through support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, NLC recently released Bright Spots in Community Engagement, a scan of communities across the country to better understand how local governments are empowering residents to advance the well-being of their communities.

Creating a culture of authentic engagement involves:

  • Reaching a broad spectrum of networks and representatives from all facets of the community, particularly those not typically engaged
  • Using new tools and strategies, particularly those that tap the power of technology, i.e. open data
  • Using a range of strategies (both traditional and more innovative) to engage residents. This helps reach more populations and leads to greater sustainability
  • Knowing when to lead and when to providing more subtle leadership in the form of support and collaboration where efforts are well underway from the grassroots
  • Making the physical and digital space available for engagement (schools, libraries)

For example, in the city of Philadelphia, partnerships across sectors have led to an open data and technology initiative that has attracted the city’s co-working spaces, venture funds, local foundations, emerging technologies, press and universities.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens,” noted Alex Hillman of Indy Hall, a co-working space in the city dedicated to neighborhood development.

The city of Philadelphia is an active participant, serving as a convener of key stakeholders, providing access to data systems, using the mayoral bully pulpit to bring attention and lend credibility to the initiatives, and institutionalizing this strategy through the mayor’s executive order on open data and the appointment of Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America, as the city’s first Chief Data Officer.

Cities across the country, like Chelsea and Philadelphia, are not only developing creative ways to help residents feel love for their cities, but leveraging this love into long term economic and fiscal impact and authentic civic engagement.