Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

5 Ways to Get Human-Infrastructure Initiatives Right

With the prospect of major federal funding to expand the social safety net, communities need to plan for investing these resources effectively. Big funding alone doesn’t ensure good program outcomes.

Two women at workstations working on textiles at the Carolina Textile District.
(Carolina Textile District)
Congress now has the opportunity to enact a historic package of bills representing the greatest expansion of the social safety net since the Great Society programs of the 1960s. If the major elements of this legislation make it through a polarized Congress, it would dramatically increase spending on child care, education and workforce training, channeling much of it through the states.

But money alone is no guarantee for effectively building human infrastructure in our communities. For these resources to truly improve the lives and livelihoods of families and workers, local stakeholders must work together in new ways, committing to a shared vision around what their community needs and how to deliver it.

That’s one of the lessons shared in our new W.E. Upjohn Institute report, A Moment of Opportunity: Strategies for Inclusive Economic Growth. Taking a rigorous look at the most effective local approaches for delivering solutions for economic development, workforce, education, child care and housing, we offer recommendations and highlight successful examples around how state and local decision-makers can invest these windfall resources effectively, equitably and sustainably. Here are five of our central recommendations:

Reorganize delivery mechanisms. Good ideas do not always lead to good policy outcomes, even if they come with big funding. The real work of policy change lies in the far less glamorous task of developing the right organizational structures to deliver benefits and coordinate actions. Today’s education, workforce development and economic development structures are, more often than not, segregated silos rather than integrated systems. Transitions from education to employment can be bumpy and incomplete. Job trainers, educators and economic developers seldom coordinate, viewing problems as either something they must handle alone or as the responsibility of others to solve. Additionally, many entities are burdened with overly rigid funding streams that stifle innovation and experimentation.

Creating a new program-delivery ecosystem within which good ideas can succeed can be done, as we saw at City Charter High School in Pittsburgh. This program provides a select group of high school students in the region, most of them low-income, with a comprehensive workforce readiness curriculum culminating in a universal 11th-grade internship experience and individualized employment plan. This alignment among workforce development, economic development and educational entities has resulted in a 100 percent placement rate for graduates into four- or two-year colleges, the military, apprenticeships or full employment at graduation.

Align timelines. Agencies in different sectors operate on widely divergent timelines, with education and workforce development focused on immediate needs and economic developers implementing strategies that stretch decades into the future. Separate funding sources and time horizons complicate alignment efforts and too often result in policies that do not simultaneously meet employers’ and residents’ needs.

But they can be pulled together, as seen in the implementation of place-based scholarship programs such as Knox County, Tenn.’s Knox Achieves (now part of the statewide Tennessee Promise). This program works by making the delivery of the benefits of an advanced education a community-wide initiative. This is achieved through the provision of mentoring and additional financial supports to help students complete degrees and credentials.

Align geographies. Government agencies and community organizations typically serve local jurisdictions that do not line up with the geography of the broader labor market, which can stretch across multiple counties. Economic development, meanwhile, too often is organized to serve the needs of business independent of the priorities of residents, particularly marginalized populations in distressed neighborhoods.

Working intentionally, communities can integrate these efforts. One example is the Carolina Textile District in western North Carolina. It demonstrates that an area’s traditional industries can be rejuvenated through mutually supporting strategies for workforce development and economic development that span jurisdictional boundaries.

Change incentives. Resolving these coordination problems is not easy, but better incentives can help. One potential strategy, as our Upjohn colleague Timothy J. Bartik detailed in this Brookings Institution report, is for states to use block grants to encourage coordination across jurisdictions and improve representation from neighborhood groups. Other approaches include “race-to-the-top”-style competitive proposals sponsored by governments or private foundations that provide financial carrots rewarding coordination and alignment.

Engage the full community. Another best practice is to actively engage underrepresented groups in the design and delivery of economic and workforce development programming. Deliberate involvement of historically marginalized residents brings new perspectives and ideas to conversations around community development while also serving to redress decades of exclusion.

That is what led to The Creamery in Kalamazoo, Mich.: a mixed-use, mixed-income housing development with high-quality child care serving local residents. As this program demonstrates, program effectiveness can be enhanced when community organizations, local philanthropies and other grassroots groups have seats at the economic and workforce development table. These organizations have better track records when it comes to engaging neighborhood residents and can bring more equitable lenses to the design of potential initiatives.

Building broadly shared local prosperity requires a combination of good ideas, a willingness to overcome organizational silos, and alignment between economic plans and residents’ needs — elements that go well beyond funding. But it can be done. The human-infrastructure legislation now before Congress would provide communities with an unparalleled opportunity to implement innovative, evidence-backed programs outside the constraints of tight state and local budgets. To avoid squandering this opportunity, policymakers will need to revamp the status quo in social program delivery and reshape it to better serve their communities.

Kathleen Bolter is the program manager for “Promise: Investing in Community” at the W.E. Upjohn Institute. Michelle Miller-Adams is a senior researcher at Upjohn and a professor at Grand Valley State University.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
From Our Partners