“Good economic theory must give the people the chance to use their talents to build their own lives. We must get away from the traditional route where the rich will do the business and the poor will depend on private or public charity.”
After knocking on over 17,000 doors since the start of the Neighborhood Opportunity Network in 2009, we have met hundreds of low-income residents with clear aspirations for a better economic path. In response, IMPACT decided several years ago to devote more effort to creating neighborhood environments that could stimulate and support the ability of people to establish businesses where they can contribute their skills, express their aspirations, generate income, and build assets. Over the past several years, IMPACT has been supporting several economic-focused Opportunity Circles in Long Branch. These circles have started or are on their way to forming new businesses in the areas of sewing, cooking and catering, child care, and home improvement.
IMPACT’s work with these economic circles has led us to focus more explicitly on supporting the development of place-based local economies as a promising approach for helping communities of color increase their ability to generate income and build assets. Through our work with these circles, as well as the hundreds of other resident stories we have encountered over the years, we have learned the following:
• The benefits of economic development policies and practices that bias toward big business and large scale projects are rarely felt or perceived at the neighborhood level where people of color live – like Long Branch. This bias towards large-scale economic development unfortunately occurs to the detriment of local economies, and effectively limits opportunities for more inclusive, collective modalities for generating income and building wealth. As a consequence, the stark income and wealth disparities that exist in Montgomery County continue to persist and grow – predictably along racial and ethnic lines of difference.
• Jobs are simply not enough for people to achieve an adequate level of self-sufficiency and quality of life. In 2013, fully 75% of those living in poverty were employed. Nevertheless, their wages remain very low. The annual income for full time employment at the county’s minimum wage is a mere $17,472; barely 20% of the county’s current Self-Sufficiency Standard. A recent survey of participants in Opportunity Circles mirrored County data. Circle members’ responses indicated that 70% are employed; however a full 80% of the members reported that they earn less than $40,000 per year. These same people continue to work diligently, developing their employment-related skills, but they currently experience the myriad challenges of deep poverty. In addition to the challenge of depressed wages, many undocumented immigrants are victims of exploitation and mistreatment in the work place.
• The challenges and barriers that people in our Network encounter in starting their own businesses are significant. These barriers include the lack of availability of legal and business development support that is both reliable and geographically and linguistically accessible, and the lack of access to capital for people with limited income, credit history, and experience with the formal banking system.
IMPACT seeks to ignite and support the development of a local economy network in Long Branch that benefits communities of color in ways that will (1) increase their ability to generate income and wealth; (2) support them in accessing promising models for asset building, investment, and ownership; (3) connect emerging and existing micro-enterprises and cooperatives to each other and a broader network of people and resources; and (4) grow the sense of public will and policy to support local economies.