To fix inequality, think local

After years of ignoring growing inequalities that threaten the future vitality of our communities, both sides of the political aisle in Washington are beginning a serious discussion about inequality in America.

President Obama recently said inequality restricts mobility and deprives people of the American dream, and is expected to continue the discussion in his State of the Union address. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) also acknowledged the importance of the issue and offered their own solutions.

While the debate continues in Washington, cities deal with the real fallout from the broken pipeline to prosperity. We see the corrosive effects of economic exclusion on the cohesion of our communities. Research pointing to declining social mobility in our country affirms what mayors across America already know too well – that the persistence of poverty is directly connected to lack of access to resources such as quality education, affordable housing and reliable transit options.

Our nation’s city leaders understand that providing a fair chance at the American dream means addressing inequality comprehensively. It means ensuring all students are reading proficiently by the end of third grade, graduating from high school and pursuing post-secondary education or training. It means making deliberative outreach efforts to engage underrepresented residents in decisions that will impact their lives. It means building an infrastructure of supportive services that address the social and emotional needs of children and families.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the positive impact of equity-minded community development in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Five months before the Central Corridor Light Rail Line carries its first fare-paying passenger, we’re already seeing $1.2 billion worth of investment in an area subject to disinvestment since the mid-1960s, including 7,500 housing units that are planned and being built.

Through a process that seeks to respect and engage those voices typically underrepresented at civic forums, the community fought and won approval for three additional stops that will serve the most public transit-dependent residents along the line.

The project’s success started by acknowledging that the best way to build pathways to opportunity and vibrant communities is to learn from the people who were excluded from having a shot at the things we all want. Cities know that the value of any investment isn’t just in moving people from point A to point B – it’s how you can get people of diverse backgrounds to invest in the success of a community. That especially includes immigrant families seeking to contribute and integrate into their new home.

The problem is too many people in Washington neglecting to address the tangible barriers to economic prosperity in favor of ideological matches that fail to produce the solutions we need. What cities need most is a partner in the federal government to do the common sense things that can change people’s lives.

Tuesday, in his State of the Union address, our nation’s cities need the president to acknowledge there is no silver bullet; and that the war on inequality must ultimately be informed and driven by local realties.

This means passing the strongest, most comprehensive immigration bill possible that provides resources for cities to integrate immigrant families into their communities. It means promoting an environment where small business can grow and thrive by putting Main Street retailers on equal footing with their online counterparts. It means continuing to support local infrastructure projects by passing a new surface transportation program that gives local governments a greater role in transportation decision-making. And importantly, it means promoting local government’s role in building an education system that prepares students to be the most innovative workforce in the world.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.” The political consensus is that the time to address inequality is now. Let’s not delay any longer.

Coleman is serving in his third term as mayor of St. Paul, Minn. and is president of the National League of Cities. He belongs to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.