How Do You Measure Inequity In Pittsburgh?

Jul 19, 2017

Ashley Morris often brings her 7- and 3-year-old daughters, Taniea and Ta’naea, along with her to run errands downtown. The 26-year-old can’t afford to fix her car, so they take the bus. Even though the line goes right by her place, she doesn’t like living in Hazelwood.

“It’s just, there’s no convenient store. We have to go all the way down to the bottom of the hill,” Morris said. “I just got my Section 8, so I’m lookin.'”

Morris might have approval for section 8 housing vouchers, but that doesn’t guarantee automatic placement.

“They said that first come first serve, if you don’t have the money, they can’t hold the house," she said. “So it’s been kind of hard."

While there are plenty of similar anecdotes of families struggling to get by in the city, researchers are trying to quantify the equity gaps in things like jobs, transportation and health – who’s impacted the most, and why?

“A lot of those times you can trace back inequalities to money, but sometimes it’s not about money,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Institute for State and Local Governance at CUNY – the City University of New York.

His organization has developed a process to measure and score these various categories. It uses a lot of existing local data, supplemented with other resources, like public surveys. It was piloted in New York City a few years ago. Now it’s expanding to Pittsburgh.

It takes a granular look at each metric, by measuring “not just who has housing, who’s evicted from housing, who can’t get into housing, what’s the experience of public housing for people with felony convictions,” said Jacobson.

Jacobson said the tool’s greatest value is its ability to track things over time, to see if they’re getting better or worse.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said government must know if the actions it takes are having a positive effect – especially with so many plans in the works.

“This just sort of dovetails perfectly with what we’ve been hoping to do on a long term basis,” Peduto said, “and it also gives us the incentive to get moving on it this year.”

Pittsburgh is already working on a few projects, such as a resiliency plan called ONE PGH, and a long-term development strategy called P4. But Peduto said this CUNY tool will give them much more in-depth information to use than what's currently available.  

Peduto said in addition to looking forward, Pittsburgh must look to its past. He said the new age of robotics and automation is disrupting the economy, and that the city has to learn from another historic disruption– when steel mills created a big disparity between those who worked in them and those who operated them.

“There’s a growing gap of poverty, and it’s happening not just in urban areas, but in rural areas as well," he said. "Potentially, if we can come up with how to lessen that gap, the potential is there to create the rural model."

Laura Fisher, senior vice president for workforce and special projects for the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, agreed.

"It’s very clear that there are populations that have been left behind all across the region, it’s not uniquely a Pittsburgh or city issue," she said. 

She said across the country, as jobs become more complex, the skills gap is only likely to increase.

“The pipeline is not what it needs to be, and we have to be really seriously thinking about how we invest in talent [and] think about how companies get engaged in career awareness activities and in supporting training,” she said.

She said the lack of entry level jobs in the city is challenging for people of color, but in areas like rural Fayette County, many white families are also facing fourth and fifth generation poverty.

Fisher said public transportation throughout the region is lacking, and is one of the greatest barriers to employment and equity. But she said personal challenges, like unpredictable work schedules and childcare, are contributing to inequalities. 

“It’s not a lack of wanting the training or having the ability to learn,” Fisher said, “it’s the life issues that get in peoples' way.”

For Pittsburgher Morris, “life is a struggle. That’s all I can say.”

Morris said she doesn’t want to receive Social Security and welfare, but continues to struggle to find work. 

“I have a disability,” she said. “I have dyslexia. And when I go on an interview, I don’t use, what should I say, proper words. I’m me, and I guess they [say], ‘Oh, she don’t know nothing, we don’t want to hire her.’”

But through the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, she’s expecting to start a new job this summer.

In collaboration with CUNY, the city is still finalizing its research strategy and will start the measurement process by the end of the year.

Peduto said he intends to keep the project going for years to come, and to make the score card a public resource for businesses, government and residents to help them make the changes they’d like to see.