Editor’s Note: Rep. Derek Kilmer is the Chair Emeritus of the New Democrat Coalition and serves on the House Appropriations Committee. Sen. Chris Coons serves on the Senate Appropriations, Foreign Relations, Judiciary, Small Business and Entrepreneurship, and Ethics committees. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
As our economy has changed in recent years, communities have been left behind. Many of them have gone from exporting products to exporting young people as job opportunities erode.
In Claymont, Delaware, a bustling steel mill that was once the beating heart of a large community halted operations in 2013 due to challenging market conditions and an influx of imports. The closure eliminated hundreds of jobs that had sustained families in northern Delaware for nearly a century. And, on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, a timber industry that once dominated the region’s economy has seen the combination of automation and dramatic reductions in harvest levels lead to mill closures and thousands of lost jobs.
Now, Covid-19 is exacerbating existing inequities, especially for these communities that were already struggling before the pandemic.
It shouldn’t be this way. That’s why we’re introducing bold legislation that will make a long-term federal investment and create new jobs in places that consistently have been left behind.
Our bipartisan Rebuilding Economies and Creating Opportunities for More People Everywhere to Excel (RECOMPETE) Act would establish a new federal program at the Economic Development Agency (EDA) to empower persistently distressed communities with flexible 10-year grants focused on meeting local economic development needs, creating good jobs, investing in workers and businesses, connecting local residents to opportunities and resources for long-term success, and building lasting economic opportunity.
According to research from Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, “distressed communities” are home to almost one-sixth of the US population and have an employment rate of “prime-age” workers (ages 25 to 54) significantly below the national average. And research from the Economic Innovation Group indicates that since 2000, “the top one-fifth of zip codes in terms of economic well-being have captured more than three-fifths of total job growth.” In contrast, distressed communities have largely been left out of the investment, wealth, innovation and opportunity concentrated in a handful of major metro areas.
Our legislation aims to address the three main challenges facing these distressed communities:
First, communities that are struggling simply don’t have the capacity to navigate the complex systems of grants and loans across a multitude of federal agencies. Many cannot afford grant writers. That’s why the RECOMPETE Act includes built-in, robust technical assistance from the EDA, which ensures communities have the help they need to design, implement and carry out a comprehensive, long-term economic development strategy.
Second, while one-year grants are helpful, the struggles facing these communities didn’t arise in one year and can’t be solved in one year. They need a sustained approach. That’s why RECOMPETE funding is based on each community’s level of economic distress and provides consistent, longer-term help.
Third, a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t work. Communities’ needs differ. For some, the barrier to growth may be inadequate broadband access or poor freight mobility, in which case they could use these grants for infrastructure development. Others may need more workers with skills in growing industries, so they could use the grants to invest in training. Or, they may need support for the redevelopment of polluted sites, job retention resources like childcare services, or support for small businesses and entrepreneurs. Communities know best what their challenges are, and solutions should be locally led.
When Congress works to pass an upcoming recovery package or an infrastructure package, it’s important that it doesn’t simply amplify existing inequities between communities that have enjoyed tremendous economic growth and others that are being left behind. Rather, we need to make sure that people have economic opportunity — regardless of what zip code they live in.
This bold, innovative agenda will spur widely shared economic growth and create more opportunities for more people in places. We’ve got a chance to make things better — let’s make sure we don’t leave any community behind.