Gender, Education Gaps Closing on City Councils. (America's City Councils in Profile)
Woodwell, Bill, Nation's Cities Weekly
This is the second in a series of stories on America's City Councils in Profile.
Although members of America's city councils tend to reflect the diversity and the demographic characteristics of the communities they serve, those who run for elected office in America's cities and towns are different from citizens generally in important ways. This blend of similarities to and differences from the broader citizenry is evident in Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils, a study by James Svara commissioned by the National League of Cities.
The study draws upon a survey of city officials conducted in 2001, and compares the results to similar surveys conducted in 1979 and 1989.
Representation of women on America's city councils increased in all three city size categories (25,000-69,000, 70,000-199,999, and 200,000 or larger in population) between 1989 and 2001. The proportion of women grew from 21 to 25 percent in small cities, 25 to 36 percent in medium-sized cities and 33 to 36 percent in large cities.
These gains appear to have made up for a drop in gender diversity on city councils between 1979 and 1989, meaning that "there was no more gender diversity on America's city councils in 2001 than there was two decades before," according to Svara.
NLC Immediate Past President Karen Anderson, mayor of Minnetonka, Minn., feels encouraged by the increase in representation of women on America's city councils between 1989 and 2001, but is concerned that the numbers are not higher.
"Women represent over 50 percent of our U.S. population and should represent us at a greater percentage at the local level, where the decisions made have such a direct impact on our daily family lives," Anderson said. "It's so important that women's voices are heard on our city and town councils and boards and that women are seen in policy making roles in our communities."
City council members tend to be older on average than the general population. The average age of council members in the 2001 survey was 54 years. As of 2001, there were fewer council members under age 40 (9 percent) and more council members over age 60 (34 percent) than there were in 1989, when the comparable figures were 16 percent and 24 percent, respectively. In 1979, there were more members under age 40 than over age 60.
"There was a move of younger persons onto city councils in the late '70s," Svara argues, "when the oldest of the baby boom generation was in their early thirties and becoming politically active."
Over time, council members who were in the youngest group when elected moved into the higher age categories, and it appears as well that fewer young candidates were winning office. Svara concludes that "this trend continues in small and medium-sized cities, whereas in large cities the emergence of political activists from the under-40 segment of the population remains relatively constant. …