When it comes to neighborliness it’s hard to get concrete numbers. There is a general sense that pitching in and helping out is a good thing. But does it count as economic activity? Here’s a story about snow falling on sidewalks that helps demonstrate the cold hard cash of being a good neighbor.
Sidewalks are common features of residential areas allowing the public to walk along the road. People stroll for exercise; they walk their dogs; they catch a bus at the bus stop. Residents are sometimes surprised when the concrete needs to be replaced that they are responsible for (the relatively costly) expense. The long-established norm is that the owner of the building behind the walk is the caretaker of the public walk. In a winter climate, the household also must clear the sidewalk of snow. Failure to do so can be hazardous as melt and refreeze makes for icy walkways.
The city of Minneapolis has been suffering from a lack of interest by residents to tackle to forty feet runs. A March 23rd editorial opinion in the Start Tribune calls a spade a spade, “let’s acknowledge that Minneapolis has an unacceptably large population of residents who feel no particular obligation to keep their walks clear.” It was written in response to a proposal that is making its way through city hall for the city to embrace the chore. The instigating motivation is people’s safety– “An unshoveled walk gets in the way not only of walking, but also of sightless navigating, of wheelchair maneuvering and other modes of travel that most of us need not master. When walks are covered in snow, a blind woman using a white cane cannot tell the difference between a residential street and an open field. A man in a wheelchair cannot negotiate the snow and ice, and might choose to risk traveling in the street instead.”
Please be aware that there are already serious repercussions in place for the n’er-do-wells who find it difficult to put their hands on a shovel. Here’s a violation letter:
I spoke with the crew who was clearing snow one morning. The gal said they can co up to thirty front walks in a day. Let’s see, 30 x $229= $6870. Paying six employees for eight hours of work only comes to $1680. It seems like a good money maker! But maybe they have to wait until someone complains to justify going out and shoveling.
This isn’t the first time shoveling has been a news feature. In 2018 the president of the Minneapolis City Council, Lisa Bender, was sited. Two of her constituents got creative and made an instructional video.
Another factor in shovel-gate might be the proportion of renters to owners in the city which runs about 53-47%. Owners receive the violation letter, but renters are in many cases responsible for snow removal in single-family homes, duplexes, and tri-plexes. Perhaps the process would be more effective if the $229 fee was directed at the residents of a dwelling.
Some argue that folks are disabled and for that reason cannot clear their walks. The US Census reports that 8.8% of city residents fall in that category. One would think that there is a capacity amongst city residents to lend a hand and help the few who can’t fend for themselves. But instead of pursuing a culture change, the city is looking into publicizing (my word, nationalizing at the city level). As one can imagine transferring a job to a bureaucracy is a little pricey. They are anticipating $20 million in this case.
Just to review the dynamics here. Most cities count on the goodwill of neighbors to clear walkways for the public. This is unpaid labor. For cultural reasons the residents of Minneapolis resist this norm. Instead of working on converting the mindset and showing people that it can be rewarding to lend a hand to someone in need, the city is pricing out the service. This process of making public something that was handled privately is called publicizing (the opposite of privatizing). The process will not only be more expensive, but it will also forgo the capacity of citizens to participate in their community. Publicizing is a change of structure not just a form of payment. It eliminates the possibility of citizens to see how simple gestures go a long way in communal endeavors.
And the price of neighborliness- for all you economists- is $20 million.