Economic growth isn’t all that it’s cut out to be…at least not for shoring up every mid-sized U.S. city. That’s according to the Fund For Our Economic Future, a philanthropic coalition based in Cleveland. After reviewing more than a hundred metropolitan areas, the Fund has released a new report about what matters most in improving their economic performance.
Ideastream’s Brian Bull talked to Emily Garr, the report’s author. He first asked her about its premise, that economic growth isn’t a “one size fits all” solution for metro areas …
EG: Metropolitan areas have a lot of unique characteristics, which make them grow. When you think of economic growth, you think of per capita income, you think of job growth, productivity growth, all those different things that make an economy healthy. When we looked at how growth was related to these different socio-economic indicators, job growth related to different things than say, income growth. Just because a lot of places had job growth, doesn’t mean that they also had income growth.
BB: So if not economic growth, then what, exactly? Is it more a matter of how we grow, rather than we just simply grow?
EG: Well, we just need to specify what we mean by growth. So as we look forward over the next five or ten years, and we’re kinda just now picking up out of this recovery, and we’re trying to get our act together as a region, how do we look at growth in a way that’s sustainable? When we talk about job growth, what is a realistic expectation for how Northeast Ohio can grow? If we have a declining population, we probably need to level-set our expectations based on the population. And on many, many other factors, like land use, and transportation, and education.
BB: The report says that Northeast Ohio’s outperformed the rest of the United States on gross product, productivity, and per capita income. And its unemployment rate is also below the national rate. So on the surface, this sounds wonderful. So why is the Fund for Our Economic Future saying…more needs to be done?
EG: Uhm, well…unfortunately, we have seen growth outpace the national economy before. This also happened after the 90s recession. And while we tended to pick up speed, in the recovery, we dropped back down again. And so this report is coming out at a really important time, because it’s a chance for us to reevaluate what we mean by economic growth, to make sure that it’s more sustainable. Because like we saw from one of the findings, unfortunately…the places…if you even just look at job growth…the places over the past two decades that increased the most in terms of employment, are also some of the most unequal, poorest, low income places.
So as we go forward out of this recession, it’s going to be really important to envision a different kind of economy for ourselves…and I don’t think this finding is just relevant for Northeast Ohio.
BB: How does Northeast Ohio fare in this report compared to the rest of the state?
EG: Well, we didn’t do comparisons by state. If you did compare it to the other 115 metropolitan areas that we sampled, it did fairly poor on things like education and innovation. Despite a lot of investment in these areas, so it’s still not enough. It came up kind of in the middle on a factor we call “economic polarization”. Because this region generally has a pretty strong middle class, but you’re also looking at very slow job growth, over the past couple decades. Northeast Ohio has been underperforming the national economy since the 70s. And so then even when you get into things like entrepreneurship, self-employment, inclusions, these are things that are generally associated with economic growth, Northeast Ohio came in at the bottom fifth of the 115 metros.
So despite all these efforts -- and a lot of good stuff is going on in the region -- I think now is the time to identify what the best practices are and scale them up if we need to.
BB: Emily Garr, thank you very much.
EG: Thank you.
Editor's Note: A series of forums are planned in June, to discuss the report. They’ll be held in Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, and Canton.