Antony Davies & James Harrigan: Peduto’s equity office more business as usual
Mayor Bill Peduto is rebranding the city’s Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment. It will henceforth be known as the Office of Equity, and will be headed by a chief equity officer. This sounds all well and good, but raises a number of questions, not the least of which is what kinds of inequities exist in Pittsburgh that are not already addressed by federal and state law, and what the city hopes to accomplish with a simple rebranding of an extant office. Perhaps more meaningfully, the very word “equity” is not defined. What does the Peduto administration even mean by the word?
According to Peduto’s executive order, “(t)he Chief Equity Officer will advise other Boards, Authorities, and Commission on their equity practices and projects and policies.” But the mayor hasn’t offered any evidence regarding how this new office will make any critical difference that the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment could not. Indeed, the mayor appears simply to have swapped out one buzzword (empowerment) for another (equity).
While it might not be clear how any of this will work, what it will cost is obvious. Operating as the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment, the office has a budget of $1.5 million for 2019, which includes 13 full-time positions. Enhancing its mission to match its new name will drive that cost up. The real question is whether Pittsburgh will get $1.5 million or more in benefit. Given how ill-defined the endeavor is, there is likely no way to answer that question.
For his part, the new chief equity officer, Majestic Lane, has said that he wants to “make sure that the quality of the childcare places in neighborhoods is equitable, that a place in Squirrel Hill is the same as a place in Homewood.” Who will pay for these sorts of changes remains to be seen, but it is likely safe to assume that recommendations emanating from the Office of Equity are not going to be paid for by that office.
Regardless of the specifics, though, all of these costs will ultimately be paid by the taxpayers. The same question thus remains: Is it worth $1.5 million, every year, to have this office?
Given that this question can’t be answered without knowing what, specifically, the office is supposed to do, perhaps another is more in order. Who benefits most, in the immediate sense, by this office’s existence? Here, the answer is very clear: the mayor himself.
While the Office of Equity’s role in the city’s affairs is undefined, its existence is not. A bold announcement of the rebranding appears on the mayor’s re-election page, just above the “donate” and “volunteer” buttons. The election is almost exactly a year and a half away, so everything from this point forward should be viewed through the lens of reelection, not governance.
From this perspective, the Office of Equity makes perfect sense. The mayor gets to claim a victory in forming the office. He will not be held to account for its unclear mission, lest people be concerned to appear “against equity.” And most importantly, he will claim that he has started this office “at no cost to the taxpayers,” casually overlooking the $1,5 million the taxpayers were already picking up for the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment.
Whatever buzz words the mayor uses, this is just more business as usual.
Antony Davies is an associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona. They host the weekly podcast Words and Numbers.