Monday, August 03, 2009

The problem of Flint (and East St. Louis, and the Mississippi Delta...)

Yesterday, I watched four or five holes where Tiger Woods methodically held onto his lead in the Buick Open (I missed his daring miss and masterful up and down on the 13th). The coverage was elegiac, because this will probably be the last year for a PGA event that is either sponsored by Buick or held near Flint.

I found myself carried along by the mood, because Flint has so little now, and the place the tournament might be moving--the Greenbriar--is a place of plenty (although to be fair, it is in West Virginia). When not rooting for my own teams, I tend to root for those from places like Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland: places that have fallen on hard times and were once great centers of making things.

One wants to figure out policies that would help these places, but no one knows what they are. We do know that people-centered policies--such as access to education and health care--help people improve their lot in life. But I know of no example of a place-based economic development program that has been broadly successful. When neighborhood vitalization is attempted in one part of a metropolitan area, it usually simply chases problems to another part of the area. A series of works by Tim Bartik and Helen Ladd shows that place based economic development programs create very few jobs and are very expensive. So the solution to the problems of economically depressed regions would seem to be to educate the kids and train the adults so they can move to economically robust places. This is a view I have long taken myself. When I visited the Mississippi Delta some years ago in the course of doing a project for the Ford Foundation, I was shocked at the amount and level of poverty one could still see within the United States, and I wanted to tell every adult to move their kid to Atlanta or Nashville, where opportunities are much greater.

But people feel a passion for their places. The intensity of these feelings have struck me twice in the past month. When I visited Cleveland around a month ago, it was clear that people cared deeply about that struggling city. When I watched the Buick Open yesterday, there was something special about how much the gallery appreciated that Tiger would play in their tournament. While economists prefer for the best of reasons to be bloodless when thinking about urban policy, people have deep ties to family and friends in their communities, and these ties are important--often more important to them than economic opportunity. And so I struggle with the policy implication--should we require people to leave their nearest and dearest in order to have a decent job?

Perhaps there is no alternative. Certainly, schemes for economic revitalization have not generally been successful. But that doesn't mean we should stop searching for something that might be.


Anonymous said...

I am proud to see you become such a smush as you get older. Very impressed.

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Austin Kelly said...

The discussion of place based economic assistance brings me back. Way back to the 1990's when I wrote a report criticizing Economic Development Administration costs per job created (or relocated, but they denied that). Amazingly enough, EDA claimed that they could create jobs in economically depressed areas for $1,000 per job (not $1,000 per year of job, but a one-time expenditure of $1,100 would supposedly create a permanent job). I expressed a bit of econometric skepticism.

party said...

Tiger is not impressed and just time wasters.

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