Brookings Report: Strategies for Left Behind Places

Interesting read on what some scholars at the Brookings Institute believe will assist the “left behind places”.

For the record, we are one of those left behind places. Smaller cities below 50,000 persons who have not seen the growth of its metropolitan neighbors.

To speed conversation, I am copying their punch list and making a few comments.

  • Boost the digital skills of left behind places. The workers, industries, and places that possess strong digital skills have enjoyed distinct economic rewards. To push back against this winner-take-all dynamic of today’s tech economy, every region’s workforce should be prepared to participate in the digital economy.

(Boosting digital skills requires early adoption of higher technology, constant investments, and bringing in the quality instructors necessary to do so. Traditionally public schools have struggled to do this because they cannot command talent, and therefore the private schools in higher metro areas have become attractive because they will pay for the talent and technology. The only real helper to our region would be a Gates Foundation type of endowment that would provided an immediate injection of capital into our schools and sustained progress in bringing in talented instructors to help middle schoolers learn how to code, high schoolers in ap development, qualitative analysis, and our trade schools and community colleges in entrepreneurial avenues, business planning, and venture capital stream identification)

  • Ensure businesses in lagging regions have access to capital. The pullback in small business lending following the financial crisis has hit less densely populated parts of the country particularly hard. Efforts to improve data on small business performance can help banks lower the transaction costs of extending small loans while innovations in financial technology can help create a secondary market for them and reduce risk. Boosting alternative, non-bank sources of capital, such as venture capital funding, can also help support regional economic growth.

You could say ditto for this one as well. Micro grants with no training gives a tool, but doesn’t show how to use it. Small loans often help to reinforce flawed methodology and double down on a design that never should have been considered. Financial technology utilization is a slow roll in many communities, and encouraging others in the community to adopt similar practices is needed. Sadly, when you ask one company to share, what you are asking them to do is give trade secrets to their competitors.

  • Reduce gaps in broadband. Large gaps in broadband service and subscriptions have put businesses and workers in less densely populated areas at a huge disadvantage. Policy proposals should focus on connecting more people and encouraging greater subscription rates in places already endowed with broadband.

Broadband access is critical. If we are to advance our communities, allowing school students the ability to access the internet to research their projects is a good start. I used to teach kids at a private school in the Triangle in NC, and can tell you that I had 2nd graders who were constructing research projects with in-text citations and bibliographies through I had seniors at another school I taught in that because of their limited access had research projects done in narrative mode. Much of this was because what they learned was from a television program.

  • Identify “growth poles” that can support regional growth. While it may be inefficient to “save” every left-behind small city or rural community in the U.S., targeted federal policy aimed at strengthening 10 or so promising mid-sized centers of advanced industry activity would bring more growth to some communities adjacent to many more lagging towns and rural areas. Federal investment in these “growth poles” will put more communities on a path toward self-sustaining economic growth.

So essentially Brookings is saying some regions need to pick winners and losers and throw funding at the winners in hopes of having the losing communities gravitate toward communities where resources were deployed. This is especially important given local trends….see last week’s article in the Times on the status of area villages. 

  • Help Americans move to opportunity. The federal government should expand the availability of financial support for individuals who want to make long-distance moves to places promising greater economic opportunity. At the same time, federal policy should encourage states and localities to relax zoning restrictions and construct new housing units to increase the supply of affordable housing. For those who wish to stay in their communities to live but not necessarily to work, state and local governments could provide a subsidy for workers commuting to adjacent communities.

Financial assistance to help citizens leave the only home they have ever known in an effort to bring them into a more civilized and better served community. Bring that conversation up at your next Township meeting and tell me how it goes.

The issues are complex, and as one person who works in our region told me, “there’s a lot of people talking about how to help Appalachia, few who do anything to actually help.” Brookings is posing some good questions, and possible paths of consideration, but with each suggestion there are significant gaps that need address and few of us, and certainly not the authors resource group, have the ability to address those gaps.