February 4, 2023

The Future Of Economic And Workforce Development

Our economic attention currently is fixed on national policy, with growing risks from a debt limit deadlock and debates over inflation versus recession. But economic prosperity also depends on state, regional, and local policy, and now there’s a free guide to some of the best thinking in the field in the newest edition of the Economic Development Quarterly (EDQ).

EDQ is a leading journal overseen by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. It brings together practitioners and scholars through “supporting evidence-based economic development and workforce development policy, programs, and practice in the United States.” (I’m a member of the editorial board, and also a contributor to this new issue.).

The new issue asked experts associated with the journal “what are the key research and policy questions facing economic development and workforce development today?” In order to reach a broad audience, including policy makers, academics, journalists, and the public, the issue is free for a limited time.

There are 15 articles in the issue, and their range and excellence make it impossible to summarize them. Some focus on companies and firms, including how entrepreneurs can be included in economic development, what policies and programs are most effective in supporting businesses and job creation. Other analyze how public economic development and workforce professionals in the field can be most effective in our complex and tangled systems.

Several articles examine changing workforce dynamics. How can policy engage with macro trends like globalization, high housing costs, and changes in commuting and working from home? Can greater inclusion for the workforce be part of an effective economic development strategy? What would economic development look like if it paid more attention to environmental, racial equity, and family and household issues?

My contribution draws on my new book, Unequal Cities: Overcoming Anti-Urban Bias to Reduce Inequality in the United States. The book outlines how America depends on cities for innovation, growth, and productivity, but also how our political systems—regional, state, and national—are biased against cities.

That pervasive bias holds down both regional and national productivity and growth. And it perpetuates racially stratified inequality in jobs, economic growth, housing, and education.

Wealthy (and predominantly white) suburbs capture the lion’s share of urban economic growth while not paying their fair share of the costs. That ongoing and structural racial bias is perpetuated over time by our public policies and fragmented metropolitan governments. This in turn makes it very hard for cities to address these problems on their own.

I argue that hyper-mathematized models in urban economics divert energy from more empirical engagement on our economic and workforce problems. We need multi-disciplinary analysis of policy, with special attention to how seemingly neutral policies generate racial and other forms of inequality. And we must recognize how our metropolitan fragmentation and segregation hold back shared economic prosperity.

Although there’s a wide range of policy viewpoints in the EDQ issue, all of the authors use research and analysis to help improve the places where we live. That distinguishes this work from much of mainstream urban economics, which is skeptical of place-based policies. Standard urban economics favors individually-based approaches emphasizing education and skills, and encouraging mobility by companies and people.

Of course, education and skill development are essential components of sound policy, and several of the EDQ articles suggest how to improve it. But in the real economy, experts like those at the Economic Policy Institute show our policy bias towards individualized and company-focused approaches hasn’t led to shared prosperity.

Instead, as watchdog analysts like Good Jobs First point out, we far too often see wasted tax subsidies going to firms that don’t need them, without good jobs and other benefits that were promised in return for the tax breaks. Public education mirrors the unequal fragmentation of regional governments, with suburbs creating better education from their higher property tax bases and wealth while core cities struggle to generate adequate educational funding.

So if you’re interested in economic and workforce development, national and regional and city prosperity, and how equity and growth can be combined in public policy, get your free issue of Economic Development Quarterly. I’m proud to be in such distinguished company, and there’s a lot to learn from them.


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