Donald Trump’s archaic use of the term “inner cities,” illustrates a couple of important points regarding where reality and urban revitalization meet. America is experiencing a historic tide of re-urbanization, and areas once called “inner city”—such as Harlem, New York City—are now hot property. So what was Donald talking about?
He correctly notes the critical need for community renewal, job growth, and wealth creation in our low-status communities—places such as Native American reservations, “Coal Country” and those urban communities not considered hip or safe enough for White folks to move in yet.
What we have in low-status communities is a different day to day environment where everything from the air quality to a parent’s ability to get their kids the best education, nutrition, and physical exercise is compromised. It is an environment of inequality that social scientists, health care researchers, and environmentalists of all kinds can corroborate.
We hear about extreme cases like the water supply in Flint, but there are many factors in the built environments of some Americans that affect their chances for safety, success, and their pursuit of happiness.
Our goal should be Environmental Equality for all people.
So what does environmental equality look like? It looks like you don’t have to move out of your neighborhood to live in a better one because everyone has equal access to clean air, water and soil as well as a built environment that supports an excellent quality of life. Without this level of equality, the talent and drive that manages to grow there despite the odds, usually leaves along with their dollars, aka Brain-Drain. This inability to retain talent further entrenches local economic stagnation.
There has been a common chorus of “solutions” such as job training, education programs and housing assistance. For example, training programs that are not linked to market-researched strategies for job-creation only ensure program graduates, not employment. And many funders—public and private—seem reticent about applying resources towards building enterprises that are promising, but appear too risky because they fall outside of the typical social justice/non-profit industrial complex realm. Historically, investors, philanthropy, governments, and grassroots groups alike have been hesitant to embark on local community economic development plans—in part because of a leadership vacuum directing their fractured efforts towards a cohesive goal.
Environmental Equality can be that national goal because it links the revitalization of neighborhood conditions, economic opportunities, public health outcomes and social stability.
Environmental Equality counteracts poverty level economic maintenance, wherein the types of developments located there are meant to support the perceived “needs” of only the poor people in those communities—despite the success stories that emerge from these unlikely places.
In these communities, instead of finding healthy food, you’ll find fast food joints, and low-grade shopping options that people leave the neighborhood to avoid when they have money to spend.
Instead of banks or credit unions that help people build their financial literacy and equity, you’ll find Rent-A-Centers, check cashing stores, pawn shops, and payday loan spots.
Instead of mixed-income quality housing that could attract a range of incomes to live in an area, you’ll find a preponderance of highly subsidized affordable housing, targeted to meet very low income ranges.
Throughout our bumpy national history, greater equality has always brought about greater prosperity. Every time the social order was disrupted, and brought closer to equality, economic prosperity followed: the American Revolution, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, and even the development of the internet.
None of these social upheavals represented an end point of “equality.” For example, in the American Revolution, “freedom” did not apply to slaves. But the idea of “freedom” carried a degree of equality forward, and made it possible for future generations to achieve economic prosperity that people could not have dreamed of before. We need that today.
Our next president can build on the real frustration with the current landscape of ineffective and costly “solutions” that Donald Trump has correctly exposed. By pivoting from a paternalistic philosophy of “care for the poor” to one of talent retention and environmental equality, cost effective changes can happen.
I have seen these changes take root in my own work and that of those I admire. Where employment in the rapidly growing tech sector seemed unattainable due to a combination of off-shored entry level jobs and hiring bias in the market place, my partners and I built a company that combines philanthropy and software industry needs to produce jobs that lead to greater opportunities—and we did so utilizing vacant storefront space in an economically depressed commercial district.
After nearly two years working for us, one of our former employees is now working at one of our client companies as a software engineer. It wasn’t strictly “training” or an entry-level job that we provided, but the right market-based solution that also played a role in transforming the local built environment as well as providing aspirational role models for the local community.
When local consumer survey data showed that people were tired of uninspiring community centers and more health clinics, we partnered with a leading regional coffee roaster to open a high-quality café—way ahead of typical real estate development trends. This commercially viable social gathering spot is helping people rethink what is possible for them and by them, in their own community.
Stories like these are popping up across the U.S. Our next president should be as comfortable as Donald Trump is at bashing the parade of ineffectual programs, but she should do so by taking advantage of the trend in social enterprise to support the environmental equality we need to retain talent and grow our local economies.
This article originally appeared on Scientific American.