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Does the Rising Tide Really Lift Everyone’s Boat?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

These are truly unique times in which we are living: global pandemic, renewed focus on systemic racism and economic disparity, generational economic upheaval and the ensuing instability and uncertainty about our future.  It reminds me that many of our problems are not new and the solutions are long overdue.  Just today I read an article highlighting a report issued this past week titled, “White Supremacy as Pre-existing Condition: Eight Solutions to Ensure Economic Recovery Reduces the Racial Wealth Divide.” The ARTICLE highlights the fact that economic disparity based on race has never been greater and has grown significantly just over the past 12 weeks of the Covid-19 economic slowdown.

It is often said that history repeats itself and unfortunately much of the civil unrest we are experiencing today is the result of repeating historically bad past actions.  It is also said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. A glowing example of this is just one of the conclusions of the aforementioned report that the racial wealth gap had been worsened by government efforts to address the 2008 financial crisis where the focus was on bailing out banks and propping up the stock market, rather than addressing systemic economic disparity.

While reading my mind kept asking what is the responsibility of economic developers?  How do we help drive solutions rather than exacerbate the problem?  I felt like I had commented on this topic previously, so I dug into the archives and found a blog from early 2015 on just this point.  What follows are some excerpts of this narrative highlighting our countries growing economic imbalance and the economic development worlds role in restoring equity.  We are re-posting because it feels even more timely today.  Most importantly, this is one area where I think we can all agree, let’s learn from our past mistakes and offer better solutions so the rising tide truly does lift all boats.


I read an article in our local paper a few weeks ago that really stuck with me.  It chronicled the dramatic disparity in relative economic health between two neighborhoods, one of which happens to be where I have lived for many years.  One excerpt in particular really bothered me: “Just a few miles separates these census tracts ………. but the socioeconomic divide between the two neighborhoods is among the starkest top-to-bottom in the nation.”

We are not alone; a number of our nations healthy and growing regions are highlighted in the report by the Urban Institute: “the worst inequality scores were seen in the Baltimore, Columbus, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia zones.”

I think the report begs some very important questions:  Does the rising tide really lift everyone’s boat?  Is it the responsibility of economic development organizations to lift everyone’s boat?  How can an EDO stay laser like focused on job creation and retention if it also has to worry about where those jobs and economic investments are directed?

The rising tide lifts all boats is a very meaningful and visual phrase.  We use it all of the time to justify investment in economic development where tangible, direct benefit is oftentimes difficult to display.  The logic of investing in an organization so they can attract and retain jobs and economic investment that will help improve the business climate, quality of life and overall economy for everyone is compelling.  But what if it doesn’t?  What if economic growth is not reaching certain segments of our communities?  What then?

We believe one of many reasons public-private partnerships for economic development work better than government agencies or all private efforts alone is because both parties are required if the challenges of economic disparity are to be addressed. The job of a county or regional EDO should be to create quality economic opportunities wherever possible for all of the citizenry.  Of perhaps even greater importance is the ability of the EDO to also inform efforts to impact disadvantaged areas with quality research and feedback from prospects and clients.   This input can serve to help appropriate organizations address endemic and systemic challenges that hold certain segments of our society back from optimizing their opportunities for growth — talent development, workforce readiness, physical infrastructure, crime, housing, etc.  The list is long but not insurmountable.

Economic disparity has been with us since the beginning of time and it is a phenomenon that will always exist in some form unfortunately.  It’s particularly concerning that in the 21st century, economic imbalance is growing rather than contracting.  We can stem the disparity gap but only if truly committed.  For the work of EDO’s to be genuinely meaningful, it must help all of the constituencies served.  While the EDO can’t fix everything, it can be part of the solution.  Then the rising tide just might lift all boats!

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