Closing the gap

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The Austin American Statesman recently reported [For too many Texans, poverty erodes opportunity] that, despite our booming economy, an estimated 1 in 5 Austin residents (and nearly 1 in 3 Austin children) live in poverty. This is one objective sign that local efforts to spur economic development are not percolating out to the people most in need of improved opportunities. Local governments must stop putting the wants of private enterprises before the needs of people.

While the overall economy booms, poverty in our community is hardening along geographic lines. The areas of very low opportunity are almost exclusively east of IH35, with areas east of SH130 solidly and seemingly intractably low opportunity.  Local governments should create Economic Development Zones focusing on these communities first and finding partners who will help achieve the goals of these communities.

For example, the community clustered around FM812 east of SH130 is ripe to be declared an Economic Development Zone. Like most who live in the Southeast quadrant of the county and east of SH130, families in this community make less money, get less education, and struggle to improve their lives and the lives of their children. The area lacks good roads, a common water provider, grocery stores, job opportunities, and transit. However, the area does offer cheap land in close proximity to the thriving City of Austin.

Enterprises like Circuit of the Americas (COTA) are attracted to these areas. Through the use of Economic Development Zones, the County, cities, school districts and emergency service districts could negotiate collectively on the community’s behalf to partner with enterprises like COTA in achieving community goals.

Merely locating an enterprise like COTA in a low opportunity area does not, of itself, improve job and other opportunities for the residents of that area. COTA, because of its ability to generate considerable commerce and sales taxes, receives benefits the community could only dream of. COTA gets better roads and the community does not. COTA gets City of Austin water and the community does not. COTA gets transit extended to it and the community does not. And ultimately, COTA gets annexed by the City of Austin and the community does not. The commerce and taxes generated by COTA are piped into regions of high opportunity leaving the circumstances for COTA’s low opportunity neighbors essentially unchanged.

Interrupting this automatic recirculation of wealth requires asking COTA, in exchange for preferential treatment (millions of dollars in tax rebates, expedited services, etc.), to partner with the community in achieving goals that are mutually beneficial. COTA could financially contribute to road work, water plans, and transit extensions that improve the experience of residents as well as race fans. COTA could meaningfully participate in local school districts and local emergency service district for the education and safety of its neighbors. COTA could even reserve VIP tickets usually given to local politicians and dignitaries and give them instead to its neighbors who cannot afford the tickets otherwise. Make these arrangements routine, explicit and enforceable and we will begin to see increased opportunity in areas that have been left outside the usual circulation of wealth.

The true measure of society is how it treats those most in need. We will never measure up unless we productively negotiate with power on behalf of communities who lack it.


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