Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act, which offers an array of social and climate programs, from generous childcare support, paid time off and new health benefits to credits. renewable electricity tax.
Democrats are touting the vote as an important step, although passage of the bill is only one step towards a more difficult showdown in the Senate.
Yet beneath the main events of the bill lies another important element: an impressive collection of “place-based” programs aimed at helping particular places and their residents thrive, rather than helping people in more ways. general, wherever they live. Within the $ 2.2 trillion bill are many local programs aimed at tackling the epidemic of uneven development in the nation, with geographically targeted funding that would promote a more equitable distribution of economic growth across the country. .
Some of the place-based pending programs would strengthen the country’s regional innovation capacity by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in regional technology hubs, manufacturing institutes and regional industrial clusters. Others would provide block grants so that struggling labor markets can expand employment opportunities. And still others would channel multi-year investments in communities to help with energy and industrial transitions, community revitalization and rural partnerships.
An initial tally finds over 30 place-based programs in legislation that would fund translational research in universities; strengthen the resilience of the supply chain around ports; accelerate the deployment of low-emission and zero-emission technologies; promote rural prosperity, establish incubators for Main Street small businesses in underserved communities, and provide funding to Indigenous communities. Add it all up and these elements – mostly unannounced in media coverage of the package but major in the history of US place-based politics – represent a real breakthrough for the growing recognition that smart investments aimed at strengthening economies particular regions or localities can improve general well-being and prosperity.
Through much of the postwar twentieth century and into the 2000s, discussions of federal policies looked askance at local politics while downplaying the problems it aimed to address. At the start of the post-war period, market forces reduced disparities in employment, wages, investment and business creation between regions and (to some extent) neighborhoods; for example, when the South started to catch up economically with the rest of the country.
In view of this, the general economic and political public felt that they could trust what they believed to be the self-regulating and benign nature of market impacts in different places and communities. As a result, Washington, DC and economic elites remained skeptical of ideas that would counter the nation’s spatial divisions, blaming the mixed record of early local interventions that directed resources to particular geographic areas.
Yet even though policymakers maintained their faith in the self-regulation of the market, the market no longer worked as they talked about it. Since the 1980s, and with intensified strength over the past decade, regional and neighborhood fortunes have ceased to converge and have diverged sharply, with disastrous impacts on thousands of urban and rural communities.
The 2016 election results underscored the country’s geographic crisis and sparked a wave of place-based research from academics at Brookings, including Brookings Metro, the Hamilton Project and the Center for Sustainable Development, as well as academics from other research organizations such as the Economic Innovation Group, Harvard University, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the Aspen Institute, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.
This welcome surge of attention, coupled with advancements in local economic development theory and practice, has led to a broad reassessment of the severity of the country’s geographic divisions, the need to respond, and the possibility of success. Reflecting this, the Build Back Better Act represents the most significant American adoption of place-based ideas since the Great Society – or perhaps even the New Deal. In short, if the law passes, it will launch a major new period of place-based investment and local problem solving.
Of course, success is not guaranteed. To begin with, the territorial prosperity and related provisions of the House bill must survive a difficult challenge in the weeks to come. This is because the House bill is now heading to the Senate, where getting the ‘yes’ might require the reduction of various provisions, although one would think the location-based elements would be particularly relevant. for states like West Virginia and Arizona, which are home to the major elements of the bill. Democratic critics, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.
Beyond that, the new territorial policies will face many implementation challenges. Exhausted federal agencies will need to renew their program design and rule-making skills to ensure that all new place-based proposals are well-designed and user-friendly. Smart rule making and design details will be especially important given the mixed track record of some past place-based efforts.
It may be even more difficult to provide resources to the distressed and underserved communities that need them most. Such targeting is a key component of many place-based initiatives, but many of the most appropriate recipients of place-based investments have limited ability to pitch their ideas and navigate federal program requirements. Federal agencies will need to be creative and energetic in providing initial support for applicants to community-based programs and ensuring that program criteria do not inadvertently create barriers for the most disadvantaged places.
And then there’s the need to show results quickly, amid both the current political atmosphere and a legacy of skepticism for place-based politics. In view of these factors, it will be important for the federal government and local stakeholders to obtain measures of success from the start, manage the fact that territorial development takes time (several years at a minimum) and work hard. to achieve great results and communicate them widely.
That said, the Build Back Better Act as passed by the House must be seen as a major breakthrough in national policy that recognizes regional and neighborhood decline and seeks to counter it with a new generation of place-based responses.
Tackling regional inequalities will absolutely require the kind of universal social programs that make up the bulk of the Build Back Better law. These vast social assistance programs represent a significant renewal of the federal government acting as a “proactive force to unite disparate regions into a single national economy,” as sociologist Robert Manduca notes. Yet, in addition to such a universal investment, a real push to improve the country’s marked geographic divisions can and must reexamine the power of targeted and place-based policies to reverse local distress and catalyze growth. The House version of the Build Back Better Act represents a major turning point for this work. Hopefully the Senate embraces it too.