As originally posted in The Hill.
The 30 million Americans living in the most economically distressed communities across the country are equally divided into red and blue districts in Congress. This was one of the many findings from the Economic Innovation Group’s (EIG) recently released Distressed Communities Index (DCI), which analyzed and compared the local economy in nearly every community throughout America.
The DCI, which captured Census data for more than 25,000 zip codes, and covered 99 percent – 244 million — of Americans over the age of 16, measures distress across several economic variables: educational attainment, poverty rate, income, unemployment, housing vacancy, change in employment, and change in the number of businesses. These variables are interconnected and present a multi-faceted look at the lack of economic growth and opportunity in communities across the country.
The DCI illustrates that pockets of distress are found in virtually every region, and encompass urban, rural, and suburban districts. The causes are sometimes decades in the making, often driven by factors that predate the Great Recession, but accelerated in recent years by challenges related to access to capital, workforce skills, lack of infrastructure investment, and regulatory red-tape. These problems require policy innovation from Washington to help break the cycle of underinvestment and the decline of entrepreneurship that traps millions of Americans.
Tackling the uneven economic recovery is good politics, as well as smart policy. A recent EIG survey of 2016 swing-state voters showed strong bipartisan support for an increased focus on economically distressed communities, particularly through incentives for greater investment from the private sector.
In fact, leading presidential candidates from both parties have begun taking up the issue. Hillary Clinton, in her campaign kickoff speech, called for help to “…ease the transition for distressed communities to a more diverse and sustainable economic future from coal country to Indian country, from small towns in the Mississippi Delta to the Rio Grande Valley to our inner cities…”
This sentiment has been echoed by GOP candidates, including Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, and Jeb Bush, who stated earlier this year at the Detroit Economic Club: “How do we recapture the prosperity and opportunity that once defined cities like Detroit … This is an urgent issue: Far too many Americans live on the edge of economic ruin.”
Voters should put every 2016 candidate on the spot for their proposals to revive struggling communities. But Congress need not wait for the 2016 returns to act. Recent research by Jared Bernstein and Kevin Hassett evaluates how previous federal efforts targeted at distressed communities – though well intentioned – have largely fallen short. Congress should work now to improve upon past programs that have shown promise, such as the New Markets Tax Credit, by working closer with entrepreneurs and investors – some of whom are already doing remarkable things to revitalize communities throughout the U.S.
With millions of Americans living in distressed communities, which transcend partisan and geographic lines, there’s every reason to act now. But to succeed, we must do more than pay lip service to the problem. Let’s face up to the inconvenient truth that the unevenness of the recovery presents a national crisis for policymakers that demands bold and imaginative approaches of the kind that are all too rare in today’s political climate.