Categories
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.