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Growing poorer: Studies question growth and economic development in Northeast Ohio

David Beach  |  07/02/13 @ 1:00pm  |  Posted in Transform

One of our society’s sacred cows is “growth.” But two recent studies—one focused on economic development and the other focused on regional land use patterns—raise questions about the quality and costs of growth in Northeast Ohio.

Low prices<br />Many new jobs are part of an economic race to the bottom and do not increase per capita incomes in a community.  Costs of sprawl<br />Much of the region's so-called growth is low-density development in new places, which imposes lots of economic, social and environmental costs on society.

We have been taught that “growth” is always good—that it’s essential to maintain a healthy society. So is it possible that growth can make us worse off?

A recent study by the Fund for Our Economic Future, a collaboration of philanthropic organizations promoting economic development in Northeast Ohio, finds that rapid job growth can make a metropolitan area poorer on many measures. According to the group’s “What Matters to Metros” study:

“Metros that had some of the strongest job growth over the period between 1990 and 2011 were more likely to exhibit higher inequality, crime and poverty in the post-recession era. This sobering observation points to a disconnect that manifested itself over time; while job growth is positively associated with inequality and poverty, it is negatively associated with per capita income growth. Civic leaders will be challenged by the observation that employment growth has not necessarily translated to rising per capita income in recent decades and in fact, has left a significant share of the population behind.”

The study says that Northeast Ohio is now in the middle of U.S. metros on the measure of inequality. It cautions that, as job growth picks up, more people could be left behind if the economy fails to produce good jobs that pay a living wage.

Another recent study looks at the physical manifestations of growth – the land use and development trends in Northeast Ohio. The Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium, a 12-county planning group, finds that recent trends consist mostly of low-density sprawl development in new suburban locations and abandonment of the region’s urban centers. Then NEOSCC calculates the fiscal impact of continuing these trends in the future. The result is bankruptcy for many communities and counties, in part because of the rising costs of maintaining infrastructure and dealing with abandoned properties.

Taking the high road

Both studies point out that all “growth” does not necessarily serve the larger public interest. Public policy must assure that economic development and land use are sustainable in the long run.

There are a lot of good ideas about how to do this. For instance, to develop an economy that works for more people, there are “high road strategies” developed by the Center on Wisconsin Strategy and advanced locally by Policy Matters Ohio.

And to promote land uses and infrastructure that build affordably on existing communities, there are “smart growth strategies” developed by Smart Growth America and advanced in Ohio by Greater Ohio and many other groups.

The important thing to realize is that political choices determine how these things play out.

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