By: Janet Ady, President, and Jordan Ackerman, Senior Research Specialist/Project Manager

“A rising tide lifts all boats.” That phrase is commonly attributed to John F. Kennedy. But in the decades of economic growth and development the country has experienced since his presidency, the more inaccurate this proclamation seems to be. When it comes to disadvantaged groups and communities, there have been long-standing, widespread disparities and inequities in economic opportunity and mobility as the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” has persisted and even grown over time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated and highlighted these profound economic inequities experienced by disadvantaged groups and communities in our society. On top of the large job losses that this segment of our workforce shouldered, the recent protests occurring over the injustice of George Floyd’s death are in part a manifestation of broader protest against the long-term injustices in economic opportunity and mobility suffered by disadvantaged groups and communities, particularly communities of color and African-American communities.

For disadvantaged groups and communities, consider the following facts. Disadvantaged groups and communities:

  • Have the least wealth accumulation in our society and are traditionally the most economically vulnerable segment of society during periods of economic contraction and recession.
  • Lag behind an educational achievement gap, stymying their prospects for future job opportunity and career progression at an early age.
  • Make up a disproportionate segment of the low-skill and low-income occupations in part due to the above points, thus lacking access to livable wages, benefits, retirement planning, and job security.
  • Disproportionately suffer from pre-existing health conditions and as a result bear a disproportionate brunt of the case transmissions and fatalities of COVID-19.
  • Make up a disproportionate segment of the workforce in sectors that have laid off or furloughed workers in large swaths as a result of COVID-19 like accommodations, food services, entertainment and recreation.
  • Make up a disproportionate segment of the workforce in sectors that have been deemed essential services during COVID-19 that require close human proximity and thus a higher health risk, such as public transportation, logistics and warehousing, meat packaging, healthcare, and food delivery services.

The question that many economic developers are facing today is “What role should EDOs play when it comes to diversity and inclusion?”   

In short, we believe that the current economic times are offering communities a fork in the road: to embrace inclusivity and diversity, thus establishing the foundation for community economic growth and vitality; or, choosing to do less, thus making their communities vulnerable to an economic decline that may not be reversible. A job, as we all have learned, is the best route forward for all individuals, and creating jobs and harnessing talent is core to what we do as economic developers.

Over the past decade, access to talent has been the lead factor driving business location decisions. Communities all over the country have been focused on retaining, developing and attracting talent, especially communities with significant manufacturing and production concentrations. There is vast untapped potential within these disadvantaged groups and communities to help fill this need, for those communities that are forward-thinking and can identify the appropriate pathways required to elevate and up-skill them into these positions.

And a focus on inclusivity and diversity does not just intersect with your talent strategies, it also intersects with your business development strategy, your placemaking strategy, and all of your other strategies.

In fact, in our strategic planning work with economic development organizations over the past several years, Ady Advantage has been advocating for mission statements and key performance measures that go beyond jobs and investment to include factors such as economic equity and economic mobility.

There are two ways to look at this proposition. The first is, wouldn’t you want your children or grandchildren to have the opportunity to live, work and play in the community in which they were raised? And the flipside of that perspective is this: without viable economic opportunities, do you want to be the economic developer in a community at high risk for heightened social services and other costs that go beyond financial costs?

We may not be able to take it for granted that a rising tide lifts all boats, but with greater intentionality around engaging, elevating, and up-skilling disadvantaged groups and communities, we can help to ensure a more equitable playing field that provides equal economic opportunity and mobility to all, which will in turn reinforce the economic vitality of our communities.

As you work through what the current economic climate means for your community and region, for your organization, and for you as an economic development professional, we can help. We’ve brought our secret sauce of thought leadership, practical recommendations, and an engaging project management approach to our work with hundreds of EDOs over the past 17 years. Feel free to reach out to us to continue the discussion.