“Unemployment is corrosive … If we want to remain a leading economy, we change on our own, or change will continue to be forced upon us.”
Andy Grove, late founder, CEO of Intel
A middle class income is required to support middle class values and stable families. Low wages make a bad joke of the dignity and rewards of work. Poor communities are expensive to operate; communities with extreme inequality fall behind. If we are to avoid Andy Grove’s prognosis, it is time for local government to step up to equal partnership with private interests.
The kids are not OK. Where a child grows up is a determinative factor of income as a young adult. Sadly, in a study of five million children born in the ‘80’s and 90’s, Harvard Professor Raj Chetty documents Floyd County as “among the worst counties in the U.S. in helping poor children up the income ladder.” Floyd is better at upward mobility than only 171 of the 2,478 counties in the United States.
You can see with distressing clarity the dead end children growing up in Floyd County face in a New York Times article published in May 2015. Please take time to read “The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up: How Your Area Compares.” It shines light in a dark corner; but it also illuminates new solutions to our challenges.
Recently elected city and county commissioners will soon take office. There is a window to take Andy Grove’s observation about responsibility for our own growth — and the inevitable result of neglect — seriously. If we continue waiting for someone else’s imagination and capital to jump start our local economy, then change will be forced on us.
To be an independent community, a strong local government is needed. Long-term growth — like long-term investing — requires a plan with specific goals and funding. We need officials and specialized staff to build public wealth for the support of our citizens and private industry.
The burden of local taxes must be borne progressively, not carried solely by those of modest income who spend all they have on necessities.
In Georgia, the bottom 40 percent of earners bears an effective state and local tax burden of 10.3 percent, while those in the top 5 percent carry a state and local tax burden of only 6 percent, according to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy.
There will be no additional funds from the federal or state governments. Everyone can expect cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Republicans have succeeded in shifting the overwhelming risks of sickness, job loss, and poverty in old age onto individuals. Likewise, reduced revenue for vital public services, schools, roads, public safety, and utilities mean a choice between degraded public assets or increased local taxes. For Rome/Floyd County to move beyond being “flyover territory,” local government must adopt a more pragmatic approach, jettison the conventional “tax work, not wealth” policies, and seek examples of innovative economic growth strategies beyond our region.
Here are two ideas for using assets we already have at hand.
Recruiting and retaining high quality law enforcement officers is a perennial problem given the comparatively low salaries we offer.
The city owns multiple properties in poor and neglected neighborhoods. As neighborhoods with concentrated poverty always are, they are nurseries of crime and hopelessness. Expand and remodel these abandoned properties, offering home ownership in the compensation package of officers, EMTs, teachers, and firepersons willing to live in these neighborhoods. Provide below market mortgage interest rates, partial down payments, and cover closing costs, enabling city/county employees to build equity in their home.
It would improve city/county employee recruitment, retention, and begin rejuvenation of neglected neighborhoods. Better neighborhoods — less economically and racially segregated — will improve schools and reduce crime. Costs originating in those areas will decline over time.
Go Green. Re-power our schools with solar energy. North Carolina offers incentives to establish public/private partnerships installing solar energy arrays on schools. School district/local government/private sector partnerships in Charlotte and Durham have designed financing options for districts, accumulated expertise in energy needs assessment, solar array construction, and operation.
The results would be reduced energy costs, living wage jobs, and development of a skilled population at the leading edge of sustainable energy technologies.
A successfully completed Floyd/Rome “Re-powering Our Schools” project is an opportunity to establish a private enterprise re-powering schools across Georgia and the Southeast.
Individually, local government incentives to community growth such as these are not silver bullets, but they are the start of a different approach to community growth.
Franklin Roosevelt was not an economist. He was a pragmatist. He tried anything that had a chance of improving the lives of ordinary citizens. A poster from his first term shows President Roosevelt in a speeding airplane with the stick in his hand and the well-known grin on his face. The caption read “Action! Action Now!”
His spirit of optimism and his focus on fair wages for American workers is needed for the struggle to raise our standard of living in a de-industrialized 21st century Rome and Floyd County. The alternative is Andy Grove’s collapse of the social contract, class conflict, and loss of self-sufficiency.
Michael Reynolds, a Rome resident retired from Georgia Tech, is a graduate of the School of Theology at Boston University. He writes for the website MOVE GEORGIA FORWARD and may be reached at MoveGeorgiaForward@gmail.com.