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Does The Rising Tide Really Lift Everyone’s Boat?

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

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 separate 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 a recent report by the Urban Institute chronicled in the article:  “the worst inequality scores were seen in the Baltimore, Columbus, Dallas, Houston and Philadelphia zones.”  Moreover, the concept of economic equality is receiving national attention in other venues as evidenced by IEDC’s recent webinar series — Inclusive Growth:  An Economic Imperative. 

I think this dialog 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?

In my opinion, one of the many reasons public-private partnerships for economic development work better than government agencies or all private efforts is because both public and private leaders are required if the challenges of economic disparity are to be addressed. Personally I don’t believe it is the function of a county or regional EDO to try and “direct” economic growth opportunities into certain segments of a community.  In fact, that approach could prove to be counter-productive as it may place you at a competitive disadvantage with other areas.

Rather, the job of a county or regional EDO should be to create quality economic opportunities wherever possible, but 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.  No one can change that; however, we can stem the gap of disparity, but only if truly committed.  For the work of EDO’s to be truly 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 truly does lift all boats!

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