An inclusive recovery would mean the best is yet to come for Erie County

The twin challenges of economic growth and racial inequality are not unfamiliar to residents of Pennsylvania’s northernmost county, but neither are they insurmountable.

In 2016, Erie, the county seat, ranked 249 out of 274 cities on overall economic health. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county’s economy collapsed, sending 26,000 workers at the unemployment line. Today, inflation is at its highest level in 40 years and county residents are feeling the impact when it comes to everything from gas prices to grocery bills.

Celina Barrios Millner

At the same time, persistent patterns of racial inequality have highlighted the county’s economic uncertainty. According to Diverse Erie — the county’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Commission — the median income for families with white heads is $63,235, compared to just $28,814 for families with black heads of households. What’s more, the Erie city ranked 259 out of 274 cities on racial inclusion even before the pandemic.

But it is entirely possible — and necessary — for Erie County to pursue an inclusive and equitable recovery from the pandemic. Many cities across the country recovered from economic distress while closing gaps in access to opportunity, such as Augusta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; and Lowell, Massachusetts. And, most importantly, these cities highlighted their inclusion efforts as catalysts for their overall growth.

Why Equity and Inclusion Matters in Erie County

In 2021, Erie County Council voted to raise $7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to advance an equitable recovery through the work of Diverse Erie. An inclusive and equitable recovery is the keystone of Erie County’s economic future, and there is overwhelming evidence that driving economic growth and closing racial gaps are intertwined.

Inequity has negative impacts not only on the most vulnerable people in our communities, but equally on all residents and on the economy as a whole. For example, persistent racial and economic segregation has cost Chicago $8 billion in gross domestic product (GDP), an amount 2½ times greater than the region’s average annual GDP growth. And new search shows that persistent disparities have cost the United States trillions of dollars in GDP growth.

Three Ways Erie County Could Use DEI to Drive an Inclusive Recovery

If communities like Erie County are truly interested in increasing equity and inclusion, they should consider restructuring local government decision-making processes in three ways:

1. Advance DCI through humility and empowerment. Policy makers who care about equity should intend to promote DEI in high-level spaces. Shifting traditional power imbalances means that underrepresented groups should have political representation at the table where leaders design and plan policies and programs.

2. Engage directly with historically marginalized community members. Communities of color, low-income people and other underrepresented groups can play a critical role in informing local-level planning and implementation of economic recovery programs. The Urban Institute recently published a guide that can equip local government agencies to work directly with community members toward the common goals of closing racial gaps and achieving other local priorities.

3. Leverage data to select equitable policies and programs and understand which policies work. Local leaders can use equity scoring tools, such as those used in King County, Washington, to ensure that equity is a key priority in the choice of projects and investments. Additionally, leaders can analyze various data and metrics to determine whether policies and programs are successfully closing opportunity access gaps.

Economic uncertainties remain for days to come, but the best could be yet to come for Erie County. To revive the economy for all, county leaders should intentionally focus on DEI and strive to achieve an inclusive recovery. In doing so, the county can demonstrate what many other localities have learned: the twin challenges of boosting the economy and ending racial inequality are mutually inclusive goals that can and should happen at the same time.

Celina Barrios Millner is Co-Vice Chair of the Urban Institute’s Office of Race and Equity Research, where she manages the Office’s support for equity-focused research and practice in Urban. Barrios-Millner brings 20 years of experience promoting transformational equity and inclusion strategies in the public sector.

Christine Stacy is a Senior Research Associate at the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where she specializes in urban economics, equity, and inclusion. Her work focuses on the intersection of economics and urban spaces and how housing, transportation, local economies, health and crime interact.

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