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.
What's not working?
One of the things we are advocating for is the reauthorization of the workforce investment act. One of the things mayors have been frustrated about is that we are concerned there is certainly an effort to zero out the community development block grant completely. And we'd like to have more flexibility within this act to create more summer jobs programs for youth. It keeps them off the street, puts some money in their pocket, helps build self esteem, teaches them basic job skills, and keeps them doing something productive. We did receive some money for that through ARRA and we were able to hire 2,100 kids for a summer and it was a very successful program. Of course, that money is gone. It also helps their families in very tough, difficult times.
What should Congress do to fuel job growth?
Programs for small business. One of the things that's really happened throughout the country is that the tightening up of credit has really hamstrung many small businesses in their efforts to invest in and grow their business. We'd like to see some programs to help small businesses get the financing they need and the resources they need to help and grow their businesses. A lot more people work for the small businesses than work for the big companies. The small businesses really are the bread and butter of the cities. [See a round-up of editorial cartoons about the economy.]
Are there any kind of federal tax incentives or encouragements for start-ups that would work particularly well?
We are very interested in historic preservation tax credits and brown field tax credits because we are an inner city and there are a lot of brown field issues. That helps us when somebody wants to come into our city and invest and grow. We also like the HOPE 6 program, which creates jobs and makes more sustainable communities. It was developed by the federal government to take the low income, high rise developments and tear them down to build low rise, more sustainable, generally mixed income communities. They've been highly successful in St. Louis. It's not a job growth program but it does keep people working and in safe and sustainable and quality living environments.
What about incentives to go back to school?
That's something that's really important: job training and education. Training programs to help those who have been displaced from another job. As an example, we had an auto manufacturing plant here shut down and another one reduced its work force. We lost of lot of jobs here and they were looking for other jobs, but they weren't trained for anything else. These programs really work in reconnecting people with gainful employment.
What kinds of jobs are needed in St. Louis?
Healthcare is huge. Our largest employer in the state of Missouri is [Barnes-Jewish] Hospital. We are thehe second largest city in terms of our headquarters for financial institutions. Edward Jones, Wells Fargo are headquartered in St. Louis. Another is tourism. And another is transportation and logistics.
What makes for St. Louis' 9 percent unemployment rate?
We're in a national economy here and we are being affected like any other city in America and there are some cities that are worse and there are some cities that aren't as bad from an unemployment standpoint. The auto industry was a big industry for us, we lost a lot of jobs there. People are spending less money so it impacts the hospitality industry significantly. Tourism and hospitality is a big sector here and as people spending less money it impacts a lot of other things. There has been downsizing in businesses in the financial sector.
What do you make of President Obama's State of the Union address calling for innovation to create jobs?
I agree. To be competitive as a country, our cities need to be competitive globally. I think if we can get more kids ready for kindergarten, which will help us tremendously in having them better prepared for the workforce when they become adults. Too many kids are going to school nationally not prepared for kindergarten and by the time they get to fifth grade, they lose interest in school, before you know it they end up being drop outs and another dropout statistic.