Mayor Toni Harp proposed a significant starting-wage increase for some of New Haven’s lowest-earning city workers in a radio interview with WNHH last Monday.

Harp’s calls for higher wages come in response to a Brookings Institution report released Jan. 14 that ranked New Haven and its surrounding metropolitan area sixth among the 10 cities with the highest income inequality nationwide. The report also found that income inequality has grown at a faster rate in New Haven since 2007 than in any other city. Natalie Holmes ’10, a senior research assistant at the Brookings Institution — a nonprofit public-policy organization based in Washington, D.C. — and Alan Berube, a senior fellow and former policy advisor to the U.S. Treasury, led the study, which analyzed income inequality in both major cities and surrounding metropolitan areas. During the radio interview, Harp discussed opportunities to increase wages within the education sector.

“Income disparity disproportionately impacts low-wage earners who already struggle to keep current with the cost of living and whose wages simply don’t increase as meaningfully as higher-wage earners,” Harp said in a statement to the News.

Harp said that New Haven Public Schools’ paraprofessionals — unlicensed teaching assistants who often support students with special needs or learning disabilities — merit higher wages. Paraprofessionals start out in NHPS earning $18,000 annually, Harp said, but she would like to see their starting annual income rise to $25,000 or $30,000. Paraprofessionals’ current average starting salary of $18,000 leaves them in the bottom 20th percentile of wage earners in the New Haven metro area, according to the Brookings data. While Harp recognized that income inequality exists across many sectors in the city, she did not propose specific wage increases for other groups during the radio interview.

Harp noted that many paraprofessionals earn only “modest wages” despite having advanced degrees. She added that many grade-school teachers in NHPS say paraprofessionals play an integral role in the classroom.

“I asked some of the teachers in the earlier grades, ‘What is it that you need the most?’ And they need that other body in the classroom,” Harp said on the radio.

City spokesman Laurence Grotheer said the proposed pay raise for paraprofessionals would be built into the Board of Education’s new budget for the 2017 school year, which Harp will craft with budget architects Victor De La Paz, the BOE’s chief financial officer, and NHPS Superintendent Garth Harries ’95. Grotheer said the BOE must submit its proposed budget to the Board of Alders on March 1.

Grotheer said Harp will begin working toward adjusting paraprofessionals’ wages in the next few weeks, but acknowledged that the proposed raise is uncertain at this time. Harp said in the radio interview that the proposed 39 percent increase in paraprofessionals’ salaries would come from within the existing BOE budget, not from a citywide tax hike.

Holmes noted that alleviating income inequality in any city is a complicated problem that requires a holistic approach.

“In general, I’m inclined to believe that we shouldn’t seek a single silver-bullet policy to address income inequality, but should instead look for a variety of complementary policy levers and mechanisms to support low-income workers and families,” Holmes wrote in an email to the News.

New Haven Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson SOM ’81 said he “applauds” Harp’s efforts to increase lower-earning workers’ wages, even if it comes at the expense of the city’s higher earners.

He added that he hopes other employers in the city will emulate Harp’s proposal and increase their lowest earners’ starting wages.

“If you do have the power to make a difference in terms of your own pay scales, at least try to make it a little bit more equitable with your own employees,” Nemerson said. “If that means people on the upper end — which includes me — make a little less, I think it’s the right thing and that’s the kind of example that we would want to set for the society if we can.”

The BOE employs 483 paraprofessionals.