17 January 2014
President Obama’s designation of five localities as Promise Zones is the latest in a long history of efforts by his predecessors to wage the war on poverty in communities where the war is needed most.
It’s a good idea, if it is done well. It would make little sense to put new financial resources into the same strategies and power structures that have created and perpetuated the poverty that exists in parts of the United States today.
The Promise Zone initiative is starting small. Federal resources permitting, it has the potential to be a productive new campaign in the war on poverty that President Lyndon Johnson declared a half-century ago. It is reminiscent of the Empowerment Zone and Enterprise Zone programs under the Clinton Administration. Then as now, the idea was to give special tax breaks and treatment in grant competitions to neighborhoods, communities and regions that are struggling economically and socially.
Today, however, there are new factors in the mix. One is global warming. Its impacts often stress the communities and people least able to cope because they lack resources. The resources in insufficient supply are not only money, but also “natural capital” including important ecosystem services that have disappeared because of environmental degradation. Those services range from flood control to water purification. One way to address poverty is to help communities restore their natural capital.
If the Promise Zone program continues, it could also address economic stress in those communities whose prosperity now depends on the production of carbon-rich energy and whose boom will become bust as the United States makes the transition to clean and renewable energy resources.
The program will need to redefine what constitutes a good business climate. A community that lacks adequate fresh water supplies, or whose energy supplies are unreliable, or whose public health is threatened by bad air quality, or that’s highly vulnerable to extreme weather events probably is not a good prospect for new businesses and jobs.
For those reasons, the Obama Administration’s program should help struggling communities achieve not just economic development, but rather sustainabledevelopment. That means development strategies that recognize how ample supplies of clean locally produced energy, fresh water resources, healthy ecosystem services, and resilience against extreme weather events are as vital to a local economy as educated workers, affordable taxes and good transportation systems.
One useful formula for economic revitalization was devised years ago by Michael Kinsley at the Rocky Mountain Institute. It consists of four simple sequential strategies for restoring the health of struggling communities.
First, jettison the idea that the best way to create jobs is to recruit outside companies. This is the lottery approach to development because relatively few new industrial plants are built in the United States each year and few communities succeed in the competition to host them. The first objective should be to plug leaks in the local economy.
One such leak is the loss of energy dollars because of poorly insulated buildings, car-dependent and poorly planned transportation systems, inefficient municipal services or excessive dependence on energy from other places. By one estimate, about 75 cents of every energy dollar immediately leaves a leaky locality. Every retained dollar, on the other hand, produces a multiplier effect. In other words, it creates several times its value as people spend it on local goods and services.
Second, create the conditions that help existing businesses thrive. For example, aggressive energy efficiency efforts by local governments can lower or slow the growth of property taxes.
Third, identify value-added opportunities in the community – opportunities to make things from local resources rather than exporting raw materials. It’s better for timber to leave a community as furniture than as logs, for example.
Fourth, go ahead and enter the national lottery for recruiting new companies to town. The first three steps will make the community more competitive.
There is a fifth important strategy beyond the RMI formula: Involve local people in deciding what prosperity means, how it would be best achieved and how incoming resources should be targeted and managed. In some communities, powerful special interests control resources to serve their own ends. They are vested in and work to perpetuate the patterns that created poverty in the first place.
Appalachia comes to mind. The coal industry largely controls the political system there. The region’s poverty has deep roots, including the fact that much of the land and its minerals are owned by outsiders – absentee landowners who bought land and mineral rights for pennies generations ago. Mountain top removal mining is causing cultural poverty because the region’s hills and biodiversity are a large part of its soul.
In many American communities, poverty is not simply a matter of money and the solution to poverty isn’t either. Well-intentioned federal programs, which have yet to succeed in places such as Appalachia, need to identify and focus on poverty’s deep roots, and they need to democratize the planning and control of economic, social, cultural, human and environmental development.
If a region’s strategy for economic renewal was turned over to its people rather than controlled by its traditional power brokers, what would be the result?
One example grew from a project that Oberlin College Prof. David Orr and I participated in several years ago in Central Appalachia. Supported by philanthropist Adam Lewis, we worked with individuals and organizations committed to diversifying the economy of coal country and to finding alternatives to mountain top removal coal mining. We called it the Central Appalachia Prosperity Project.
Getting large numbers of people to agree on anything falls somewhere between challenging and impossible, but over the course of 12 months the project produced 50 pages of ideas for greening and diversifying the mountain economy. It also produced 10 principles that were endorsed by many of the region’s citizen leaders and civic organizations. Among them were Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the Mountain Area Association for Community Economic Development, Downstream Strategies, Berea College, the Center for Rural Strategies, the Appalachian Community Fund, the Brushy Fork Institute, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, the Center for Rural Entrepreneurship, the JOBS Project and the West Virginia Economic Justice Project, along with individuals whose defense of the region’s mountains and culture is nothing short of heroic.
The principles, reproduced here verbatim, are worth the attention of Obama Administration’s Promise Zone initiative:
1. The principal goal of economic development in Central Appalachia is to build, secure and sustain the genuine prosperity of its people. Economic development in Central Appalachia must achieve prosperity in the fullest sense of that term, including a strong economy; a rich cultural heritage; a vibrant entrepreneurial sprit; a skilled, healthy and educated populace; robust social and natural resources; and communities that serve the spirit and the aspirations of their people.
2. Economic development must meet the needs of the region’s people today while preserving the capacity of future Appalachians to meet their needs.This principle embodies the definition of sustainable development created by the United Nation’s Brundtland Commission in 1987. It expresses an ethic critical to human progress at the local as well as global level: striving for true prosperity today in ways that protect the resources and conditions future generations will need to achieve an equal or better quality of life.
3. The people of Central Appalachia will seek to protect, sustain and enrich their human, natural and cultural capital. The capital necessary for genuine prosperity takes many forms – financial, social, cultural, physical, natural and ecological. Appalachian workers who have dedicated their lives to the nation’s energy needs. Farmers, forest workers, producers of wood products, artists and musicians – these are just a few examples of the region’s rich human capital. Other vital capital includes a modern education system; clean energy, water and air; a safe, sound and modern built environment; and abundant natural resources. All of these are critical to a robust and sustainable economy.
4. Economic development policies and programs should promote a diverse mix of business, industry and job opportunities appropriate to the conditions, markets, culture and needs of the 21st century. Economic strength will be found in diversity. Central Appalachia will build a stronger economy when it nurtures diverse economic opportunities that respond to and thrive in the new realities of this century – among them, an unprecedented market for clean energy technologies in the United States and worldwide, an urgent need for environmental technologies and services, and the imperative for businesses and jobs that optimize economy, environment and equity. The first great challenge America faces in this new century is to make economic development compatible with healthy families, communities and natural systems. Appalachia should be a pioneer in demonstrating how that goal can be achieved.
At the same time, farming, forestry, wood production and other land-based enterprises should remain a vital part of the Appalachian economy, providing food, fiber and the materials used in housing and the build environment. These enterprises are grounded in generations of practice that now can be improved with our new understandings of sustainable agriculture and forest-management practices. They represent an immediate place to begin the transition to a carbon-sequestering, community-building economy that uses familiar skills, reduces transaction distances and costs, and enhances self-reliance.
5. Regional development should create educational, recreational, cultural and career opportunities for young people. Economic development plans and programs should involve the young people who represent the future of Central Appalachia. Building educational, cultural, recreational and career opportunities for young people is essential to the region’s prosperity, encouraging new generations to build their families and lives in the region.
6. Political and economic power should be shared in Central Appalachia to strengthen diversity. Economic development strategies must be created in collaboration with the diverse array of people, industries and communities they are meant to serve. Community planners and economic development agencies in Central Appalachia should adhere to the principles of open government and create ample opportunities for civic engagement in planning. Public officials should clearly show how public input is used. In addition, residents of the region should increase their political and economic power to guide Appalachia’s future by incorporating their communities, increasing their ownership of land and resources, and recreating locally owned lending and investment institutions.
7. Economic development should increase the self-sufficiency, health, well-being, safety and dignity of the people of Central Appalachia. Locally owned enterprises are key to the region’s sustainable prosperity. While attracting industries from outside the region can be important, creating local enterprises is a jobs and economic development strategy over which communities have much greater control.
8. The region should optimize the sustainable use of its natural resources.Appalachia is one of the most beautiful regions of the world. Its natural environment offers an array of ecosystem services and economic benefits ranging from medicinal herbs and non-timber forest products to opportunities for residents and visitors to hike, camp, hunt, fish, raft and experience the power of nature to restore body, mind and spirit. These resources are one of the region’s richest assets. Those who manage them must be careful not to confuse “optimize” with “maximize”. Wise stewardship of Appalachia’s rich natural resources is vital to the region’s prosperity.
9. Economic equity, environmental justice and equal opportunity must be pillars of economic development in the region. Appalachia’s history of social struggle – for example, the struggle of mine workers and unions to improve working conditions within the coal industry – underscores the importance of equity, equality and justice in a sustainable society. All ethnic groups, income levels, workers and geographic areas in Central Appalachia should enjoy equal opportunity for prosperity and should become active stakeholders in the region’s well being. No community, profession or group should be expected to bear disproportionate costs of economic activity.
10. While the people of Central Appalachia create new markets and income, the value of “non-market” production should not be underestimated or lost.A rich part of the region’s tradition is the work of homesteaders, homemakers and neighbors who provide goods and services for one another without pay. Local production, self-sufficiency and the willingness of neighbor to help neighbor add strength and resilience to the economy. Appalachia’s non-market goods and services, beyond the usual metrics of employment, wages and gross regional product, should be among the factors used to measure its economic success and its wealth.
A region’s native intelligence, spirit, cultural memory and deep commitment to the future exist in people and organizations like these. They are the real promise in Promise Zones. That’s why the Obama Administration should make transparency, vision, broad and ongoing citizen participation. and the democratic disposition of resources conditions of the assistance it offers to America’s impoverished places.