Three Ways Your City Can Prosper by Embracing Equity

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This is a guest post by Sarah Treuhaft. This post is the third installment in a series focused on NLC’s annual Cities and Unequal Recovery report, which highlights the findings of our annual Local Economic Conditions survey.

Participants in the SySTEMic Solutions program in Fairfax County make a presentation on robotics. As part of an overall strategic plan for economic growth, cities can create programs like this one, in partnership with universities and area businesses, to funnel students into STEM-related professions. (photo: Northern Virginia Community College)

NLC’s annual survey of local economic conditions paints a clear picture of unequal growth in America’s cities, underscoring the need for bold, focused strategies to firmly link low-income communities and communities of color with regional (and global) economic opportunities.

Two years ago, New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio captivated voters with his “tale of two cities” narrative summarizing the dynamics of rising inequality in America’s largest metropolis. NLC’s 2015 survey of chief elected officials revealed how uneven growth is not isolated to high-tech boomtowns, but widespread among the nation’s cities.

The survey illustrates the challenge of poverty amidst plenty: While 92 percent of city mayors said economic conditions improved in the past year, 50 percent reported an increase in demand for survival services like food and shelter, 36 percent saw an increase in homelessness, and 24 percent reported a decrease in housing affordability.

Urban economies are coming back, but the rising economic tide is not translating into good jobs, rising wages, and ownership opportunities for low-income residents and communities of color. Our analyses of the Bay Area and Fairfax County, Va., revealed the persistence of racial inequities in these booming economies. A new report on New Orleans finds that although the region has “staged an unlikely economic comeback,” 41 percent of families are struggling to get by on less than a living wage — up from 35 percent in 2006 — and those families are disproportionately made up of women and people of color. And Alan Mallach’s research on older industrial cities shows how growth is isolated to a few high-density, walkable neighborhoods while income, wealth, and home values are stagnant or declining everywhere else, with African American communities losing the most ground.

Unequal growth is socially and economically unsustainable. Research shows that more equitable regions experience stronger and longer-lasting growth. Demographic changes are also magnifying the costs of racial economic exclusion and upping the value proposition of inclusion. As Baby Boomers retire, their jobs will need to be filled by a much more diverse generation.

Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit's NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)
Small business owners Al and Marie Pronko benefitted from a $10,000 cash award as part of Detroit’s NEIdeas program, which helps local businesses as part of a larger strategy to spur economic growth in the city. (photo: NEIdeasDetroit.org)

In the face of these trends, cities should embrace equity as their path to prosperity and take steps to foster inclusive growth: growing new jobs and new businesses while ensuring that low-income people and people of color fully participate in generating that growth and fully share in its benefits. Here are three ways forward:

Bake racial economic inclusion into growth strategies.

Getting to equitable growth requires an intentional and strategic focus on removing barriers and building pathways for struggling workers and entrepreneurs to connect to jobs and business opportunities. Many cities are tackling this challenge and implementing new approaches to fuse growth and opportunity. Portland’s economic development agency just launched an Inclusive Startup Fund to provide capital, mentoring, and business advising to startups founded by underrepresented groups. Recognizing the importance of neighborhood businesses to Detroit’s renaissance, the New Economy Initiative held NEIdeas contests in 2014 and 2015 to provide financial and technical support to help neighborhood businesses grow. And in Pittsburgh, Urban Innovation 21 is connecting the city’s low-income African American communities with its knowledge-economy revival by placing youth in internships at area tech companies, supporting local entrepreneurs, and running a new Citizen Science Lab that offers hands-on life sciences trainings.

Implement a homegrown talent development plan.

City leaders recognize that workforce preparedness is central to their economic success, but often focus on attracting young, mobile, college grads from other states. To shift to equitable growth, cities need to cultivate their homegrown talent. Universal pre-K is a winning strategy and San Antonio’s groundbreaking program is already showing results for low-income, predominantly-Latino four-year olds. “Cradle-to-career” partnerships like Promise Neighborhoods are working to ensure children in low-income neighborhoods have the educational, health, and community supports they need to succeed. NLC’s survey reveals there is a great deal of room for cities to adopt targeted and sectoral workforce development strategies. One promising effort is New Orleans’s Economic Opportunity Strategy, which aims to recruit, train, and connect many of the city’s 35,000 jobless black men with jobs coming online at its major anchor institutions. Cities can also unleash talent by knocking down hurdles to employment. Passing “ban the box” policies that remove questions about prior convictions from job applications and creating municipal ID cards that help immigrants access financial and other services are key strategies.

Leverage public spending, investment, and planning as a force for inclusive growth.

While cities do not control all of the policy levers needed to move toward equitable growth, they can leverage their land use planning and zoning powers, procurement, and infrastructure investments to connect unemployed and underemployed residents to good jobs and transform disinvested neighborhoods into resilient “communities of opportunity.” The upturn in market activity presents cities with opportunities to implement classic equitable development tools — local hiring, community benefits agreements, permanently affordable housing, living wages, etc. — to ensure long-term residents benefit from publicly-subsidized development and can stay in their neighborhoods as they improve. Cities must also innovate new tools — like San Francisco’s new Retail Workers Bill of Rights — to turn low-wage jobs into jobs that support strong families and strong communities.

Now is the time for cities to lead on inclusive growth. Please join us at the 2015 Equity Summit October 27-29 in Los Angeles to explore these and other strategies for building “All-In Cities,” and sign up for our newsletter for regular stories about what works for equitable growth.

About the Author: Sarah Treuhaft is Director of Equitable Growth Initiatives at PolicyLink. She leads the organization’s work to advance racial and economic inclusion as an economic imperative and coordinates the development of the National Equity Atlas. You can connect with Sarah on Twitter @streuhaft.

1 comments on “Three Ways Your City Can Prosper by Embracing Equity”

  1. Good article, thank you. Seems investment in education should be included in the long-term economic strategy, since our public school systems are still not equitable particularly in many urban areas.

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