The California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED) describes economic development as “the creation of wealth from which community benefits are realized.” In a nutshell, it is what makes our world, our state, our cities, and our communities thrive… or not thrive. It’s our transportation systems, school systems, food chains, parks and recreation, workforce, small businesses, and leadership. Ultimately, it’s our choices, options and standards, all of which are based on what we have been taught.
Because it encompasses many complex ideas, economic development is easy to dismiss as high-level theory in the course of everyday life. However, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted its importance by exposing a magnitude of weaknesses and vulnerabilities in people and systems the world over. “Going digital” provided a lifeline for many over the last two years. Technology kept businesses and brands afloat; in fact, it fed families and continues to do so. Digital platforms like Postmates, Grubhub, Uber Eats and Instacart are now key drivers of consumer income, demand, education, and training. The pandemic fast tracked the long-anticipated digital revolution as a necessity, no longer an option. Those that don’t embrace this new digital paradigm have been or are on the brink of being left behind.
These last two years have put into focus the intersection of economic self-sufficiency to that of economic development and economic empowerment. While economic self-sufficiency is not a new concept in the United States, it has not been embraced in the way that it should have been. It seems our society has facilitated a system where individuals look to the government to be saved. We pump billions of dollars into programs and services that, oftentimes, don’t reach the people in the community that need to be reached. Elected officials come into office thinking they have the power to save people… yet communities that are struggling continue to fall further behind. The haphazard response to COVID-19 made clear that if we hold our breath and wait for the government to save us, the odds are pretty high that we might die, especially those that have found themselves in the middleclass and quickly falling into poverty. Instead, we must ask, how do we create and control our own environments?
The solution could be simple: invest more in people by making it a priority to educate individuals on financial literacy and what equity really means–not so much with respect to social equity, but rather, economic equity. As early as the 12th-century, the philosopher Maimonides wrote about the 8th and “most meritorious” degree of charity as preventing poverty through a gift or loan, or by teaching a trade, or by putting one in business, so that “one may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding up his hand for charity.” In 1885, the novelist Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie wrote the earliest known version of the popular adage, “…if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour. If you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.” These are seemingly basic principles, yet in today’s climate, there seems to be little courage to show some “tough love” and roll up our sleeves to teach people how to fish. Better yet, to make it mandatory. It goes against the current social construct, and electeds are oftentimes not ready to say in public anything that may not be popular among the people they perceive to have voted them into office.
There are many people with the courage to speak publicly and get into the political arena, but in the process they play it safe and say only what they think will get them elected and put in a position of power. Others just simply have no lived experience or knowledge of history to understand how to best advocate and fight for the people that they represent. People are coming to realize this basic truth: it’s quick and easy to get a handout from whatever program is en vogue, but you are then a slave to changes in positions of power, or in world conditions, most of which are not in your control. This leads us to another controversial topic.
The Root of Displacement, Eviction, and Gentrification
When a neighborhood appears to be blighted, or there’s a lot of distressed, or vacant housing and underutilized land, revitalization is a concept that the government uses to kickstart, or facilitate economic development. Oftentimes, unfortunately, it goes hand in hand with displacement, eviction, and gentrification. Historically, low-income people, indigenous people, and people of color are the most impacted. My book When Communities Disappear: the Unspoken Truths of Community Revitalization Ideologies and Policies in the United States explores the historical evidence of the dark history of urban renewal, particularly in Chapter Four.
These challenging conditions happen to people, and are done by people. Government, big business, and policymakers have played a key role in creating these conditions since the establishment of our great nation. Policy (codes, laws, ordinances) is what facilitates or prohibits something from happening. Whether it’s a liquor store, an automobile shop, housing, or other establishment, there are policies in place that either allow or prohibit these businesses and developments to occur in a specific area. Taking it a bit further, eminent domain is a policy or a law that allows government agencies to take private property under certain defined circumstances. Our highways, railways, hospitals, parks, cemeteries, prisons, government buildings, and universities are all institutions that have displaced many people historically, and it still happens today. These things more often than not happen to people that are on the lower end of the socio-economic stick.
The last piece in the puzzle is politics. Politics is a set of activities that are associated with making decisions for a community. It forms relationships between individuals in positions of power that facilitate the distribution or destruction of resources or status. Money in politics strongly influences the policies that are most impactful. It is what allows a distribution center and warehouse to go in the backyard of a neighborhood that has existed for the past 100 years.
Ultimately, displacement, eviction, and gentrification won’t happen without a policy that supports it. It’s often political and it tends to affect most people that have no real political relevance or political will. And that’s the unfortunate truth.
Understanding this is necessary, irrespective of what one’s role is in society. Whether you’re a homeowner or renter, a business owner or aspiring developer, this is critical information that impacts you, directly or indirectly. This behooves individuals to stay connected and work with their communities–the non-profit and faith-based organizations, the small businesses and the city staff, the local electeds and officials. This connectivity will provide the understanding of what policies mean, how it impacts each of us, and ultimately, how to work together to have more influence over what happens to and in our communities.
It is a work in progress to wrap our brains around economic development at the individual level, and then at the local community level. But, as “unsexy” as this subject may be, these are ideas deserving of real passion and attention by us all.
Dive deeper by listening to Veronica Smith’s conversation with the Nice Guys on Business – Ep. 1233 Veronica Smith: What to do When Communities Disappear.
Also, Veronica’s book “When Communities Disappear: the Unspoken Truths of Community Revitalization Ideologies and Policies in the United States” is available on Amazon.
About the Co-Author:
Tracy Covington is a marketing and business development professional with two decades of experience, and currently serves as a city planning commissioner. She recharges through writing, reading, travel, maker hobbies, and being mom to two teenagers (and two small dogs). You can follow her adventures and interests on Instagram @tracy.cov.