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Economic Development

What can economic developers really do about low wages?

The latest economic development news out of Michigan is a pledge to do something about lagging real wages, or, rather, ask state officials if they will do something about it.

Many of the state’s leading economic development organizations and private foundations have banded together under Rising Income For All to request that state policy makers adopt United Way’s ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) statistic for estimating cost-burdened households as the “universal measure of success in meeting the goal of an economy that as it grows, benefits all.”

ALICE, like predecessors such as MIT’s Living Wage Calculator, EPI’s Family Budget Estimator, and the Family Budgets tool by Texas-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, shows quantitatively why traditional metrics–unemployment rate, poverty rate, even per capita income–can provide only incomplete pictures of what economic distress looks like today to the growing ranks of cost-burdened households, especially if regional cost of living differences and inflation are ignored. According to the latest available ALICE data from United Way, 43% of Michigan households are unable to cover basic household necessities.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due. It’s been about ten years since “traditional” economic development advocacy groups started saying, at least publicly, that “not all jobs are good jobs.” Now some economic development leaders in Michigan appear ready to take another step in that direction, which, to my knowledge, is the first coordinated statewide effort among local economic developers to do so, publicly. I can’t recall anything similar in other states, but please let me know via email if you are aware of something that should be mentioned.

What gets measured gets done, as I’m sure some of the people on the Rising Income For All roster might say, so I’d call this a good sign for the future of economic development in Michigan. As an instructor, I would also give them high marks for compelling calls to action:

“For the first time ever Michigan is a low-prosperity state with a strong domestic auto industry.”

“In every county in Michigan, 30% or more of families can’t afford basic necessities.”

https://risingincomeforall.org/

There will undoubtedly be detractors. It’s not too difficult to be cynical about economic development. As the media coverage points out, as of yet the Rising Income For All supporters have not offered any specific proposals to achieve their stated objective, beyond state recognition of ALICE. They should probably be ready to explain why their advocacy for better math doesn’t appear to extend to the minimum wage.

Further, according to data from Good Jobs First, companies investing in Michigan have received state and local subsidies totaling nearly $16 billion, ranking third among states. How would Rising Income For All supporters characterize the return on investment for those projects in the interest of fighting wage stagnation?

How far are economic developers on board with the initiative prepared to go? Will they advocate for changes to the state’s tax credit programs to ensure that only companies committed to real wage increases receive subsidies? Will local economic developers encourage their boards and elected officials to make changes to tax abatement policies? Are they willing to sign an economic development non-compete agreement to improve their collective negotiating position with companies in the pursuit of Rising Income For All’s vision for inclusive prosperity?

What gets measured gets done. We shall see.

Categories
Economic Development

Nashville: We need a common set of facts about equity and inclusive economic development

Equity is having a moment in Nashville. David Plazas is calling on business leaders to make a commitment to more inclusive growth and prosperity. Metro Council is passing symbolic resolutions. Mayor Cooper is promising a Nashville that works for everyone. How all of that goes from rhetoric to meaningful action remains to be seen, but declarative statements are a start. Two lines, in particular, caught my attention in Plazas’s piece:

“The prosperity of recent years has disproportionately benefited people with higher incomes, who own property, and who have technical or higher-level skills.”

“Meanwhile, wages have stagnated or fallen for long-term lower-skilled workers who have struggled to keep up, especially people of color.”

I’ve heard different versions of those points made many times since I arrived in Nashville two years ago. Anecdotal evidence abounds about where the benefits of “New Nashville” are accruing, and how growth is exacerbating the gaps between newcomers and existing residents, the “haves” and the “have nots.” But what does the data say? Are those claims accurate? And do they tell the entire story?

To be clear, I hope that Plazas and advocates continue to push our elected leaders to keep equity front and center of debate about economic development in Nashville. When Metro and its various stakeholder groups decide they are ready to have a serious policy, and not just tinker around the edges, I hope that equity will be its cornerstone. There are many good examples from other cities to draw from, including what we adopted in Austin.

But if and when that day comes we’ll need more than testimonials and anecdotal evidence. Clearly articulating goals, developing strategies, and evaluating progress will require data and a serious commitment to open dialogue, transparency, and accountability. As with any public endeavor, everybody gets a say; all experiences are valid. But Very Serious People should not go unchallenged publicly because of what I’ve heard described as “Nashville Nice” or some distorted view of defining “politics” as one’s inalienable right to dissemble when facts are readily accessible. This was part of our motivation behind launching the resident survey and publishing the data on Metro’s open data portal. I hope the Cooper administration and new Metro Council continue down that path.

So, in that spirit, let’s take a look at Plazas’s points. We’ll combine them here since they are somewhat related and restate the issue as follows: Are the benefits of Nashville’s economic growth disproportionately accruing to people equipped with the tools (i.e. education, skills, etc.) to take advantage of it? And, if so, is that exacerbating inequality? I can’t say for sure how Plazas would define or measure “benefit[ed],” but since he used terms such as income and skills it’s probably safe to assume that he was thinking, at least in part, about workers. Which means the question becomes: Have wages “stagnated or fallen” for workers with lower levels of educational attainment compared to those with higher levels?

Here’s a table showing growth in inflation-adjusted (real) average earnings for workers age 25+ in Davidson County by educational attainment and race/ethnicity for 2011-18. The data is from the Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics program.

Average earnings for workers in Davidson County with no postsecondary education grew faster than any other cohort during that time period. In fact, average earnings for workers with no high school diploma or GED grew about three times faster than average earnings for workers with a bachelor’s or advanced degree, according to Census estimates. Clearly, Nashville’s recent period of economic growth has produced gains for workers across the spectrum of education and skills, not just at the top of it.

But I don’t think that’s what Plazas was really trying to say. I think his point was directed more toward issues of equity and affordability–and, in that context, he’s absolutely right. Housing experts tell us that we should spend no more than 30% of earnings on housing costs to be considered affordable. Do that calculation using the 2018 figures in the table above and Plazas’s argument comes into focus. For example, average earnings for Black workers in Davidson County are equivalent to about $1,000 in total monthly affordable housing costs. The average rent in Nashville now exceeds $1,400 per month.

It’s the same story for Hispanic workers in Davidson County, as well as workers with no completed postsecondary education, on average. And the gaps are growing. Inflation-adjusted average rent in Nashville increased by 40% in 2011-18, compared to average earnings growth of only 5% for Black workers in Davidson County.

This is where the debate about inclusive economic development in Nashville, or any fast-growing city for that matter, should start. What combination of policies and strategies are going to effectively address these challenges resulting from economic success? In fact, we had a similar conversation in Austin this week with a group from Grand Rapids.

As any of my former students can attest, I feel very strongly–and very likely annoyingly so–about the importance of a call to action when developing a strategy. It’s an often overlooked feature in practice. But if you don’t have a compelling call to action it can be really difficult to get people engaged and participating in a serious way.

I’ll offer this for Plazas’s next one:

In 1998, when Nashville was a much different place, Black workers in Davidson County earned, on average, about 66% that of White workers. Today, despite twenty years of economic growth and opportunity, it’s 59%.