City Council on Aug. 7 approved the first few steps required to conduct a study that would gauge whether the city should change its business contracting policies to favor minorities and women. While approval for the study was unanimous in Council, it wasn’t long before a string of critics broke out the social media and sarcasm to deride the city for doing the right thing.
“Don’t spend money to fix the deteriorating streets or shore up the pension fund. Let’s have a ‘study’ by some academic instead,” wrote Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes on Twitter.
It’s easy to mock the need for a racial and gender-based disparity study as an over-privileged white man, but the truth is the study will have little cost for the enormous benefits it could bring to Cincinnati.
For starters, the study is only necessary because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that governments must prove there is a need to favorably target minorities or women before adopting policies that actually do so. The requirement makes some sense, given the improvement in overall race and gender relations in the United States since affirmative action programs were first thought up.
It’s also important to put the cost in context. The city administration estimates the study will cost anywhere between $500,000 to $1.5 million. Even at the highest cost, that would put the study at less than half of 1 percent of the annual operating budget. Put another way, it would cost roughly 1.6 percent of the $92 million in upfront parking lease money that a majority of Council would like to use to pay for the study.
Those pennies on the dollar could help fix a problem that has long ailed the city. Since Cincinnati did away with its minority- and gender-based contracting policies in 1999, participation rates for minority-owned businesses have plummeted from a high of 22.4 percent in 1997 to a low of 2.7 percent in 2007, while rates for women-owned businesses have remained relatively flat.
It’s worth pointing out that reporting as a minority- or women-owned business was mandatory in the 1990s and it’s voluntary now, so the most recent numbers are likely underrepresenting both kinds of businesses.
Still, it’s unlikely that roughly 90-percent drop in minority contracts is entirely because of reporting requirements.
The low contracting rate is especially concerning because it could be having an ugly effect on the local unemployment rate for minorities, which remains roughly twice as high as it does for white residents, according to the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky African American Chamber of Commerce. Since minority-owned businesses are more likely to hire minorities, that unemployment rate would presumably fall if the city contracted with more of those businesses.
Given the obvious statistical concerns, not spending pennies on the dollar to verify whether minorities and women are truly facing discrimination through current contracting policies would be borderline criminal.
Should City Council have done it earlier? Sure. It’s a shame the city hasn’t taken up another study since 2002. Is it questionable that the city is using parking lease money that isn’t even set yet? Maybe. But as City Manager Milton Dohoney explained, getting the study going will take months. Presumably, the parking lease money will be available by then.
But considering Cincinnati’s history with race, the city shouldn’t turn this issue into another melodramatic political football. It’s long past the time to do the right thing.
Other News and Stuff
• It looks like the Ohio legislature will soon take up its favorite issue again: abortion. The heartbeat bill, the controversial proposal that would ban abortion as soon as a heartbeat is detected, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, might be introduced by Republican legislators in the next couple weeks. The renewed proposal comes just months after the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich approved a slew of regulatory hurdles in the state budget that will make it a lot more difficult to get an abortion in Ohio and shut down abortion clinics around the state.
• A report from the Children’s Defense Fund and Annie E. Casey Foundation found Hamilton County scores worse than various statewide averages for children’s well-being. Hamilton County’s childhood poverty rate is 27.7 percent, while Ohio’s overall rate is 23.9 percent. If the county brought the rate down to the state average, it would pull more than 3,000 local children out of poverty. Meanwhile, every level of government seems to be cutting some form of aid to the poorest Americans as politicians push austerity policies around the nation.