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A Conversation with Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter: Innovation in Leadership (Part 1)

This is first in a two-part series from a conversation in January 2024 with Saint Paul mayor Melvin Carter. It is part of our ongoing “Diversity in Politics” series sponsored by Women Winning and Vote Run Lead. After the all-women Saint Paul City Council was inaugurated, we talked with the mayor about what Saint Paul is doing differently than most large urban cities in terms of leadership around housing and local economy, and why.

 


There is pushback by some about the experiment in St. Paul about guaranteed basic income — that giving money away is not good leadership. Thoughts?

One of my favorite days of every year is when Standard and Poor’s, and Moody’s [the two largest U.S. bond ratings firms that independently evaluate credit worthiness], and the professionals whose job it is to evaluate the finances of cities all over the globe, release their reports on Saint Paul. We have a perfect credit rating. It’s triple A stable. We didn’t inherit that when I became mayor; we earned it. It is great to get that external feedback that we’re being responsible stewards of our city’s dollars. We borrow $50 or $60 million a year to help us repair our streets across the city. The interest rate on borrowing that money is dependent on our credit score. Because our city has a perfect credit rating, we’re able to borrow that money in ways that save millions of dollars for our taxpayers over time. 

Money management is critical, and it benefits our community members. A lot of this boils down to what I think of as reversing the polarity of the models of city building that we’ve all learned.

We have understood for decades that public safety is not simply about racing to the scene of a crime after an emergency has happened. If we race to places of concern first, [and they do tend to be identifiable], we can reduce the likelihood that crime happens. 

We also can recognize that the greatest untapped asset is the human capital that exists in this city — all the potential workers, all the businesses looking for those workers. When you look at guaranteed income, to college savings accounts, raising the minimum wage, eliminating late fines at our libraries, eliminating participation fees for youth sports, what you see is an unprecedented investment directly in the pockets of our residents. Our people have the capacity to make their money work for them. 

 

 

I’m proud of our capacity to be innovators and experimenters. You hear people talk about cities as laboratories of democracy, that means we have a responsibility to try things out that can be taken up at a state and federal level. 

I’m one of the national co-chairs of an organization called Mayors for Guaranteed Income, which has independent research to do evaluation of our work. My co-chair, Michael Tubbs, used to be the mayor of Stockton, which was the first American city to launch a mayor-run guaranteed income pilot. Saint Paul was the second, and the first to use public dollars to do it. I hear him say all the time: “Getting it right is more important than being right,” which is why that independent evaluation is so important.

The biggest knocks when we started guaranteed basic income was, “Why would people work anymore if you’re just giving away free money?” I’ve never heard anybody say that who could afford to quit their day job for $500 a month. 

What we’re seeing is somewhat unsurprising — people who have enough money to last beyond the end of the month are happier, have a stronger sense of self, have a greater ability to build savings and absorb an unplanned financial emergency. .

What we learned from our first two studies is that not only did our participants not quit their jobs, getting $500 a month, but they increased their employment. In Stockton, they did a randomized control trial, which found that participants in the first pilot had an employment rate of 49 percent when it started, and 63 percent after it finished. 

What we’re finding out is that a relatively small amount of money is enabling residents to build their capacity to participate in the workforce and to participate in our economy. 

I keep joking that we’re 60 years into a war on poverty, and giving poor people money just came to mind. It feels like what we’re doing is attacking traditional tropes — the racist, sexist, classist myths that we learned and accepted as gospel truth about why people are poor. 

  • “If you give poor people money, they’re going to spend it on drugs and alcohol.” Except we did that for 18 months, and 90 percent of the dollars went to food, rent, clothing, and shoes for their children. 
  • “We know that poor people are poor, because they don’t work hard and don’t have initiative.” But we see people in our pilot programs waking up at 4am to drive a bus, and working long, hard hours. 
  • “We know that low-income Americans are poor because they don’t manage their money well.” Except we see single moms feeding six children on minimum wage. Donald Trump couldn’t do that. There’s no greater money manager than low-income single moms in America. 

So, we are learning why to advocate for guaranteed income. But probably more importantly, we are exposing lies that we’ve learned about why people are poor and how poverty works. Those lies creep into our public policy, which is why our war on poverty hasn’t worked. 

We’ve now launched 51 pilots around the country and are pooling them into one central database. I think we’re building the biggest repository of facts and empirical evidence about how poverty works, and why poverty exists in America.

Tell us about your new medical debt initiative. 

We’re taking a million dollars in American rescue plan dollars — pandemic relief funds — and using it to purchase and eliminate over $100 million in medical debt. We passed this proposal in December. We take $1 million and use it to buy over $100 million in medical debt that our residents have. Private companies buy debt for pennies on the dollar all the time — if you owe me $100, and I can’t collect it, I sell it to somebody else for $1. They try to collect the $100 bucks that they’ve acquired the rights to for $1. So we’re doing the same thing that the private sector does, except we’re going to forgive the debt. We’re going to wipe away over $100 million in medical debt for our residents with a $1 million investment. 

Our goal is to make the biggest bets we can on our residents. Medical debt isn’t just a bill that’s hanging over the head of our residents. It’s a hurdle that prevents them from accessing preventative care that we all need them to be able to access. Improvement requires change. One of the challenges that we face every day is that the voices who speak the loudest to demand improvements are the same people who get mad when we try to change anything. 

We’re used to homelessness, we’re used to people dying in the cold in Minnesota, we’re used to disparities, we’re used to poverty, we’re used to inequity. If we’re only going to limit our playbook to the things that we’re used to, then we’re only going to limit our outcomes to the things that we’re used to. That’s unacceptable. 

The only thing I know for a fact is what will happen if we only keep doing the same things that we’ve always done. We have to be able to shift and try new things, or else we’re simply demonstrating our commitment to keeping the status quo. That’s what we cannot afford to do.

So, we’re taking examples from around the country and putting our own Saint Paul spin on it. There is a national movement of Offices of Violence Prevention, which led to our Office of Neighborhood Safety. St. Louis had college savings accounts before we did. Cleveland did medical debt before we did.

 


What is Saint Paul looking forward to doing differently around housing?

Housing is such an immense topic that sometimes we end up doing nothing, because we can’t do everything. 

We reestablished the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. We’ve invested heavily in affordable housing and indirect supports. Our guaranteed income work also is very relevant to housing in our city. We haven’t yet taken the time to build our housing conversations yet, as we have with public safety. 

The framework needs to start with the core understandings that we have. There are so many chapters. We need to be incentivizing new construction. Every time somebody says housing crisis, I remind them that most simply means we have more people in our community than we have homes. That means our city is a desirable place to live. Sometimes people say, “I don’t want our population to grow.” The solution to that is to make it a less desirable place to live — but is that what we want?

If we’re not adding housing, then we’re going to exacerbate the housing crisis that we’re experiencing. So encouraging new housing growth is critical. That means supporting developers and landlords, and supporting their ability to earn a living, make money, and earn a profit in our community. 

Ensuring rights of renters and the ability of low-income families to live with dignity and stability in our community also is absolutely critical. Frankly, that’s critical to our landlords being able to find success. A landlord being able to find success is the same as a renter being able to live with dignity and stability in Saint Paul. 

The unsheltered crisis has been more visible than ever. It didn’t start with the COVID crisis. In spring 2020, we saw a tenfold increase of residents outdoors. Responding to that crisis is critical. 

One of the challenges is that, as Saint Paul builds its infrastructure to support people who experience being unsheltered, what happens if you become homeless in a suburban or rural community that doesn’t have that infrastructure? What do you do? You go straight to Minneapolis or St. Paul, Hennepin or Ramsey County. We’re working with the legislature and governor on regional and statewide solutions on housing. 

One of our neighboring counties turned down $10 million in support from the state to build a homeless shelter, because they didn’t want homeless people in their community. Well, those folks don’t suddenly have housing and find support; they come to Saint Paul. Finding regional solutions is absolutely critical for us. There is no way for a local community to hold up a whole state of needs with local property tax dollars. 

One of the next chapters that I’m looking forward to doing with this new city council is launching that public conversation.


You have a wonderfully diverse city council. What are you looking forward to doing with the all-women group of co-decision-makers?

 

The faces of the new Saint Paul City Council back row (l-r): Nelsie Yang, Rebecca Noecker, Cheniqua Johnson, Hwa Jeong Kim. Front row: Saura Jost, Anika Bowie, Mitra Jalali. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

In truth, I wouldn’t call our last city council a status quo council either. Everything I’m proud of accomplishing in Saint Paul over the last five years was done in partnership with our last city council. 

What I think is happening is about the leaders who are stepping up, but even more so it’s about the community. The people in our city decided a long time ago that we need a more data-driven, proactive approach on public safety. They started electing leaders who were listening to them.

People in our community have said they want more diversity in representation, that we want to be a city that’s on the cutting edge of stepping forward to invest in residents. They seem to be electing, all across our city, leaders who are committed to that.

A reporter asked me if I was worried that the city council was going to push us past our comfort zone. I responded that not pushing us past our comfort zone would worry me much more than pushing us. 

When I first got elected, the former deputy mayor for Mayor Coleman, Kristin Beckmann, was standing in the mayor’s office with me and she asked if I was going to move the furniture in the office. The question surprised me, because I’ve been around City Hall for the better part of the last 20 years and, even as the mayor-elect of the city, it didn’t occur to me that moving the desk was within my power. I was so used to seeing it the way it was. Just being in the building, you develop this strong and even unconscious allegiance to tradition, to what you get used to. Whenever a new leader comes in they start asking new questions. I look forward to that —  taking things I don’t even realize are conclusions that I’ve made and questioning them, giving us a chance to learn a new approach with all the concerns we’ve struggled with forever. I’m very excited for the journey. 

 

Part 2 to come: Talking with the mayor about public safety


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