Rethinking Economic Development

Our industry must embrace racial equity and shared prosperity as its core mission

I have spent much of my career working with local governments to shape inclusive economic development policy. The events of the past month have caused me to question traditional approaches to economic development, even the most progressive. A seismic shift is required for the economic development profession to contribute to ending systemic racism rather than continuing to perpetuate it.
Written by Cary Hirschstein
Most state and local governments deploy economic development resources to attract new jobs and secure capital investment. The term “trickle-down economics” has typically been reserved for federal economic policy, but most state and local economic development regimes follow a similar formula: we assume that if we grow the economy, we will generate opportunity for all and/or expand fiscal resources to support communities in need. Cities seek to attract high-wage jobs because they will pay higher taxes and drive greater spending within the local economy. This approach is built on a faulty premise: that growth yields equitable prosperity.
Economic development policy has transformed the American city while deepening racial divides. The core visions, initiatives, and tools of economic development have facilitated the return of investment to our downtowns, creating vibrant places where talent wants to be and businesses want to grow. At the same time, the imperative to “build on strength” tends to steer resources to White neighborhoods and central business districts. Prior to recently enacted policy changes, we found that parcels in one affluent, predominantly White neighborhood in Columbus, OH were three times more likely to have received property tax abatements than a comparison set of less affluent, predominantly Black communities. In Houston, 10% of the city’s property tax base is collected within its 26 Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZ). The four wealthiest TIRZs combined retain more tax increment than the remaining 22, which they are able to reinvest locally. Studies examining federal expenditures to promote economic mobility show that benefits accrue predominantly to middle- and higher income households and limit intergenerational mobility for low- and moderate-income families.
Equitable prosperity is not a core mission of most “economic development” departments; rather it is the domain of “community development” entities. Although some cities have begun to merge community and economic development functions, they remain for the most part siloed. Economic development functions are generally better resourced than community development. Programs like workforce development and small business support that don’t involve headline-garnering, multimillion-dollar deals are often shunted to the margins of agency hierarchies.
Economic development professionals must embrace creation of shared prosperity and an equitable economy as core missions. Some City-led economic development departments have begun to employ equity as a primary lens for evaluation and deployment of their resources. We need to ensure these practices become the norm across the country, but also that they go far deeper to disrupt systemic racism. While we continue to invest in the renewal of our cities, we must also ask: who do our investments benefit, and how can those benefits be more equitably distributed? I offer five responses:

  1. Shift resources to investments that promote racial equity. Cities should view their economic development expenditures and assets as an investment portfolio, a primary objective of which is to create more equitable local economies. Realizing this objective will require a close examination of the beneficiaries of past investments; a deliberate shift in target recipients, geographies, and tools deployed to reach them; and far greater transparency and accountability for the deployment of resources. The potential impact is immense. A 2016 New York Times study estimated that state and local governments provide $80 billion annually in business incentives. The foregone revenue of the 10 states with the largest tax breaks is equivalent to the annual salaries of 27,000+ teachers.

  3. Articulate our values, use them to structure investments, and measure their actual benefits. We need to state what we expect of those doing business in our cities and insist, not just hope, that economic growth be a springboard for equitable opportunity. For those incentive deals we choose to do, requirements that provide strong, measurable public benefit should be the norm without exception. For example, New York City and State’s efforts to attract Amazon established no clear relationship between incentives offered and community benefits, which would still be true were a similar opportunity to be presented today. In contrast, Prosper Portland reformulated its mission, values and programs over the past five years to make racial equity the foundation of its work. All recipients of Prosper Portland’s largest incentive program, Enterprise Zone, execute a public benefits agreement. Companies can choose from a menu of options to fulfill their agreement, including creating a diversity hiring plan, engaging with local schools, and hosting events to support entrepreneurship. Initial results are promising, in part because companies wish to attract a younger talent pool that seeks employers with principles that align with their own.

  5. Promote equitable access to jobs. There is a broadly shared understanding today that human capital is core to the future of local economies and that businesses follow talent. It is therefore incongruous that our economic development entities remain focused on attracting businesses rather than cultivating our workforce. Studies suggest that customized business services such as job training are as much as 10 times more effective than incentives in influencing business location decisions. To aid economic mobility, economic developers should target industry expansion opportunities that align with pathways for the existing workforce and also invest in upskilling. Cities must provide protections for low-wage workers – disproportionately Black and female. Indianapolis recently repositioned its core economic development incentives to prioritize a higher minimum wage, health and childcare benefits, workforce training, and community partnerships.

  7. Invest in small businesses, with an emphasis on businesses of color. As the enormity of the COVID-19 pandemic became clear, Philadelphia distributed $13.3 million in grants and zero-interest loans to 2,000 small businesses, more money than it had distributed to all businesses citywide in the past 10 years through its primary job creation program. Indy Chamber issued $6 million in small business loans, a 15-fold increase over loan activity in a typical year. In both cases, the majority of recipients were businesses of color – 75% in Indianapolis and 60% in Philadelphia. Economic development leaders with whom I’ve spoken share the view that efforts to rebuild small business strength must be sustained. A focus on minority entrepreneurship is critical to counter structural disparities. According to Brookings, Black people represent only 4.3% of the nation’s business owners despite being 12.7% of the U.S. population, and if businesses in Black communities earned and grew at the same rate as in other neighborhoods, they would see an additional $3.9 billion in annual revenue. Providing the financial and technical support to grow more Black-owned businesses will mean looking to models like Oakland, CA’s Black Arts Business and Movement District, which established a development corporation and impact fund to support Black artists and business owners.

  9. Transform economic development ecosystems. Community development is economic development, and cities’ institutions should align mission and coordinate investments in currently siloed entities to recognize that fact. In many cases, disruptive change will be necessary to inject new voices, establish new priorities, shift budgetary allocations, and truly transform systems. Public organizations must hire and promote leadership and staff that is more reflective of the demographics of their cities, and we must carefully consider whose voices and analyses are elevated as we refocus our work. Investments in capacity-building for local partners within the larger economic and community development ecosystem will be critical to ensure a more robust infrastructure.

There is great urgency to this work. We have seen how underlying economic inequities, matched with the indignities of the criminal legal system, have gotten us to a boiling point in our cities. The road ahead requires taking decisive action to promote racial equity and shared prosperity, including ending a decades-long experiment in economic growth absent a real commitment to equity.

Special thanks to Andrea Batista Schlesinger, Candace Damon, Leah Elliott, Gail Hankin, Jeff Hebert, Kyle Vangel, and Mary Beth Williams for their intellectual and analytic contributions to this article.