DALLAS — About one in five people in Hallandale Beach, Fla., live below the poverty line. Though it is a small city — 37,000 people, a horse track and a greyhound track — its mayor, Joy Cooper, bellied up to the table during a jobs committee discussion on Saturday among the nation’s mayors and fired off a few questions about raising the minimum wage, if not for the whole city, at least for businesses with city contracts.
“I want to make sure my employees are cared for properly,” Ms. Cooper said later. “I want to have a high-quality work force.”
A wave of cities and states have raised their minimum wage in the absence of federal action, most notably Seattle, which this month elected to go to $ 15 an hour, the highest minimum wage in the country. San Francisco seems likely to do the same. New York, too, is poised to raise its minimum wage if the Legislature grants permission.
But such actions are not limited to coastal cities or those with the starkest contrast between rich and poor. Here at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, which convened over the weekend, the subject of income inequality seemed to be on almost everyone’s lips, and mayors wondered aloud how best to use their powers to help the lowest-paid workers.
“This year, the idea that cities have an important role to play in raising the minimum wage has gone mainstream,” said Paul K. Sonn, the general counsel of the National Employment Law Project. “More leaders than ever are looking to fight poverty locally with higher city wages.”
He said that included Mayor Rahm Emmanuel of Chicago and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, who is pushing a bill that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $ 10 and allow cities to increase it even more, if they choose.
Mayors here discussed a range of subjects, including net neutrality, environmental regulation, community colleges and blight. But even some of those issues were framed as a way to increase the odds of advancement for the less well-off.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore, for example, said the city was offering tens of thousands of dollars in incentives for home buyers if they purchased a previously vacant home. Maria Shriver, the former first lady of California, also appeared, with a plea to support low-income women with services like better access to child care.
Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, who addressed the conference on Sunday, said: “We’re not asking for help in fighting inequality out of some sense of local privilege. We’re doing it because not only do we have to solve the problems of our people, we have to help this nation avert the crisis that will come if we don’t address these problems and if our cities remain unsupported, since we are more and more the economic engines and core for this country.”
He added, “If our federal partners or our state partners aren’t acting quickly enough, we will act.”
Mr. de Blasio will lead a new task force of mayors to address inequality and formulate an “urban agenda” to be pursued in Washington. The group will meet at Gracie Mansion, his mayoral residence, in August. The task force is not limited to wages, and will also address issues like paying for pre-K education.
At a news conference announcing the task force, Mayor Mike Rawlings of Dallas said, “This income disparity is costing us millions and millions and millions of dollars.”
Several mayors said that raising the minimum wage did not have momentum in their cities or was not possible. In Oklahoma City, there was a push by labor groups to raise it; the State Legislature responded by barring cities from doing so. Seventeen states have passed such laws, including Florida, according to the National Employment Law Project, while this year alone nine states have voted to increase their minimum wage.
Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City said his city was attacking inequality in other ways, like using a special sales tax to rebuild or refurbish 73 aging city schools. Mr. Cornett, a rare Republican among big-city mayors, said the cost of living and unemployment were both low in Oklahoma City.
“The best thing we can really do for a family that’s struggling is create a better job or a new job,” he said.
Mayors who cannot not raise the minimum wage focused, like Ms. Cooper, on requiring city contractors and vendors to pay a living wage to their employees. Mayor Sly James of Kansas City, Mo., said he had emailed his legal counsel and city manager after the jobs committee meeting to see if vendors and concessionaires could be required to pay workers more.
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