In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama called for innovation and education reform to help Americans to "win the future." St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay agrees that Obama's call identifies the crucial steps cities to take to be able to compete in a global economy and to increase employment. As chair of the United States Conference of Mayors's jobs, education and workforce committee, Slay brings city mayors' concerns to Washington. And the number one worry mayors have is unemployment, says Slay. He applauds the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, more commonly known as the Obama stimulus program, which he says has helped to create new jobs and curb layoffs in St. Louis, but argues cities will continue to need federal funding to help reduce the high unemployment rates in cities across the country. Slay, a Democrat who has been governing the city of St. Louis since 2001, recently spoke to U.S. News about what Congress can and should do to stimulate job growth. [See a slide show of the 10 Best Cities to Get a Job in 2011.]
What been the biggest concern city mayors have that they want Washington to address?
The unemployment level in the nation. And doing what we can to reduce the unemployment level, Everyone's got their own ideas individually as cities in terms of what they feel is important for their cities. But the themes that we get across the board are several: mayors are interested in good quality education for their citizens, kids, and even adults. They are interested in a focus on education at every level, from preschool all the way through high school and college and post college education. An investment in education, particularly at the lowest level between preschool and 12th grade. Everybody knows that in order to compete in a global economy, that it's important we have a good quality work force. This is a long term investment, this is not something that's going to turn the economy around immediately, but we need to be preparing our children today for the future.
We've also advocated for infrastructure. Investment in infrastructure creates jobs, creates more competitive cities. Transportation is a big one. Many cities, particularly larger cities, including St. Louis, are interested in sustainable transportation investments, whether it's light rail, high speed rail, mass transit systems that help people get around at a relatively low cost and in an environmentally responsible manner. They help build more livable communities, and communities that are more connected in an easier way. That's an investment that we believe will produce jobs and strengthen cities. [See the 10 best cities for public transportation.]
We are interested very much in investment in a green economy, investment in green jobs. We need to compete globally now, and we know that to compete globally we need to be environmentally responsible and to create jobs. There's plenty of innovation opportunities and job opportunities in sustainable efforts. We've received some conservation block grant money and we are using it in a whole host of different ways to make our government more effective and efficient and to build partnerships with other organizations to train people for green jobs. We think more funding for those efforts will help create jobs and help prepare us for a future economy that will be more sustainable. [See a slide show of 10 cities adopting smart grid technology.]
Is this something most cities can do? How can other cities make these kinds of investments?
We are rolling out a city wide recycling program in the city of St. Louis. By recycling, you create more jobs than you do taking your trash and dumping it in a landfill. Investment in research and development as well as investment in job training so people are ready to tackle all the new innovations that are there to help us be a more sustainable community.
The community development block grant is huge for cities. It's the only existing program right now where there are dollars going directly to cities. It's arguably the federal government's most successful domestic program. It provides both urban and suburban cities, counties and states with a lot of flexibility to address affordable housing and neighborhood revitalization needs. And it is responsible. This helps people in our community who are most in need not only with jobs but also with assistance. It does create a lot of jobs because these programs have to be staffed. And the money does go to help low and moderate families.
What other Congressional initiatives so far have been successful in terms of jobs?
ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] was hugely successful in terms of the money we were able to get. We have had money for infrastructure investments which created jobs, there's money that's really helped people who were unemployed through the unemployment benefits extensions. There's been money that has gone to homeless prevention and foreclosure prevention which we used to save people's homes and keep people out of foreclosure and to keep people off the streets. We've also had money that's been given to us for education and for law enforcement. There's money that went to the states that was able to save a lot of jobs in education, police and fire protection. Without the money we received from that, we would have had to lay off police officers in the city of St. Louis. So that's not just jobs but also the safety of citizens.