Can Economic Opportunity Flourish When Communities Do Not? Can Economic Opportunity Flourish When Communities Do Not?

October 18, 2014
The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's 58th Economic Conference: "Inequality of Economic Opportunity" Boston, Massachusetts

Boston Fed president Eric Rosengren said Saturday that creating economic opportunity for all may require new thinking and tactics, and new points of emphasis at the local level.

He was speaking at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston's 58th Economic Conference - an interdisciplinary gathering of researchers and policymakers focused on "Inequality of Economic Opportunity."

Most of the key services that make up the infrastructure supporting opportunity are provided locally. "How well these local services are provided can vary considerably across communities, which in turn can have a substantial effect on the distribution of opportunities" for individuals, said Rosengren.

Money alone is not a sufficient solution, Rosengren said. "Many of the Massachusetts cities that have lagged the nation have performed worse over time despite significant expenditure."

The importance of "community context" underlines an important question, said Rosengren: "Is local civic and social infrastructure sufficient to provide opportunities for individuals to overcome economic barriers?"

Research by the Boston Fed found that having effective civic leadership and a common vision within a city - paired with strong cross-sector, collaborative support for that vision - can significantly improve the chances of a city's resurgence.

Looking to turn research into action, Boston Fed leaders "considered how we could facilitate and support revival in some of our region's mid-sized cities," said Rosengren. The resulting project is called the Working Cities Challenge.

The Challenge asked struggling mid-sized Massachusetts cities to submit proposals for solving a specific problem facing low- and moderate-income individuals. Proposals had to demonstrate strong collaboration between sectors.

"While the ultimate socioeconomic impact of this competition may take years to observe in the data, the initial qualitative results look promising," said Rosengren.

While income inequality may be a somewhat controversial issue, most people agree that equality of opportunity is a most worthy goal. "While we must not underestimate the challenges, hopefully we will be able to look back a decade or so from now and see significant progress in our communities and steady improvements in equality of opportunity."