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In the traditional lexicon of economic development – where bottom-line job and investment totals tend to dominate discussion – “inclusive growth” is still a novel concept.  But the idea that economic success goes hand-in-hand with economic access is a hot topic at the Brookings Institution…and also fits perfectly with the Anchor Revitalization Program underway in Indianapolis.

The ‘Live’ phase of the Anchor Program was well underway when a team from the Indy Chamber joined leaders from San Diego and Nashville as the first cohort of a six-month ‘Learning Lab’ organized by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

“In so many ways, Indy is booming – and we’re proud of that,” said Mark Fisher, the Indy Chamber’s Chief Policy Officer.  “But having one of the nation’s fastest-growing metro tech sectors and one of its fastest-growing poverty rates points to a massive gap that we need to close before it fractures our economy.”

Brookings defined inclusive growth in terms of broader and more equitable distribution of employment, earnings, and potential for upward mobility – in short, a larger and more welcoming middle class.

In a wonkish exercise in regression analysis, Brookings economists were even able to demonstrate a positive relationship between inclusion and overall growth.  The Indianapolis team reached the same conclusion, seeing the connection between inclusion and our regional demand for human capital.

“Creativity, talent, and knowledge drive economic growth…cities succeed because they have a critical mass of human capital,” said Drew Klacik, senior analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute (PPI).  “Indianapolis is a major metropolitan area, but we’re writing off hundreds of thousands of people – they’re isolated by their education or their zip code, or some other barrier to employment and economic mobility.

“Inclusion is a ‘win-win’ imperative,” Klacik continued.  “We need more people participating in our economy, and we have an untapped pool of people eager for better jobs and a higher quality of life.”

During the six-month Lab, the Indianapolis team conducted interviews with dozens of business, civic and neighborhood constituents, in tandem with research initiatives supported by Brookings and the IU PPI.  They confirmed that the path towards a brighter future is strewn with hurdles for many of our neighbors:

For example, more than 100,000 adults across the region lack even a high school diploma, creating a skill mismatch between workers eager for better jobs and employers struggling to find qualified employees.

Geography also creates barriers.  The average low-income household can reach less than a third of all jobs in the metro area via transit, and affordable housing near suburban employment centers is scarce.  Job growth is robust, but more poor families are crowded into the same neighborhoods (a skyrocketing rate of “concentrated poverty” in Indianapolis), meaning fewer living-wage options within a realistic commute.

“The Brookings Lab helped us start asking the right questions about how to promote inclusive growth,” noted Fisher.  “We also found we were already working on some pretty good answers.”

The coalition among business, neighborhood and social service groups to win political and electoral support for expanded Marion County mass transit was a promising partnership towards inclusive goals – closing the gap between people and employment, education and other daily necessities.

The success of the transit effort had already caught Brookings’ attention; Metropolitan Policy Program Director Amy Liu called it “a notable development in [a] red-state capitol,” and wrote: “Church groups, social justice advocates, and business and civic leaders made the case that the transit expansion was essential for boosting economic competitiveness, workers’ access to opportunity, and neighborhood revitalization.”

Enlisting Indy’s anchor institutions to promote local housing, hiring and business development was another initiative that’s gained new context in light of the Brookings studies on inclusive growth.

“Our anchor partners are uniquely-positioned to promote homeownership and provide accessible employment in urban neighborhoods across Indianapolis,” explained Fisher.

“Just like transit, the Anchor Revitalization Program makes sense as a standalone strategy,” he finished.  “But thanks to our work with Brookings, we can also see it as part of a broader agenda for inclusive growth – by helping our anchor partners work together, they can also help build an economy that works for everyone.”

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