Regional equity is a movement that has emerged over the last decade that is beginning to redefine urban politics and to articulate a new approach to economic and community development.
Faith and community based organizing networks such as the Gamaliel Foundation and labor organizations such as Working Partnerships USA and the South Bay Labor Council (in Santa Clara, California) have developed a regional equity framework to guide their strategies for regional power building and sustainable economic development.
What is regional equity and how is this movement reshaping progressive politics at the regional and state levels?
Regional equity stresses the region as the fundamental category for understanding and addressing the economic, social, and environmental problems facing working class and communities of color in urban America today. Regional equity emphasizes the economic, spatial, and political dynamics that are the root causes for:
- The dramatic polarization of wealth and incomes;
- The decay of inner city and older inner ring suburban infrastructure;
- Entrenched racial and residential segregation;
- Sprawl and white flight to ‘opportunity rich’ outer ring suburbs; and
- The fragmentation of local governance across metropolitan regions.
Over the last generation the fiscal crisis of the cities, suburbanization, and capital mobility have constrained the ability of municipalities to provide basic services and respond to the economic and environmental crisis of urban America. The regional equity movement asserts that it is government policy and not the market that is primarily responsible for the urban crisis. The basic premise of the regional equity approach is that the fate of the inner city, the inner suburbs and the outer suburbs are intertwined and interdependent — many urban issues like transit, air pollution, labor markets and working poverty, and the jobs-housing mismatch do not stop at municipal boundaries and require regional solutions. Proponents of regional equity believe that regions drive economic development and that building inclusive and equitable regions is important for not only for economic and social justice, but also for economic competitiveness. Greater equity across a region will increase the skills and educational levels of the workforce, promote reinvestment in both inner city and suburban infrastructure, and develop social trust by the inclusion and increased economic opportunity for marginalized new immigrant, low income and communities of color. By building regional coalitions that transcend racial, ethnic, and spatial divides and by articulating a broad vision for social, economic, and racial justice, regional equity proponents are forging ‘metropolitan majorities’ to move power at the regional level and to implement regional policy promoting smart, equitable and sustainable growth. Creation of a social movement for regional equity must begin at the local and neighborhood level to address the immediate concerns of working families but the movement must continuously assess the fiscal and political limits of what can be accomplished at this level. Ultimately, the regional equity movement must ‘scale up’ to impact regional and state policy. A good example of this were the successful 2006 ballot initiatives in six states that raised these states’ minimum wage substantially above the federal minimum, and indexed the respective state minimum wage to inflation. In addition, another six states in 2006 raised their minimum wage through the legislature. In most of these states regional equity proponents were deeply involved in living wage campaigns at the local level and most campaigns framed their advocacy for living wages within a broad vision for social and economic justice. By 2006 nearly 130 cities, counties, and public agencies had implemented living wage laws. Undoubtedly, the public education, organizing, and coalition building by the living wage and regional equity movements at the local level over the last decade impacted public opinion and contributed to the successful ballot initiatives and legislative action to increase state minimum wages. As Amy Dean has carefully documented in her book, A New New Deal, many metropolitan region-wide Central Labor Councils such as the South Bay Labor Council in Northern California and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor in Southern California, have collaborated with labor-based nonprofits such as Working Partnerships USA in Santa Clara and the Los Angeles Alliance for A New Economy (LAANE) in L.A. to systematically promote a regional equity agenda. Such an agenda includes not only living wage laws, but also community benefit agreements, superstore ordinances, inclusionary zoning for affordable housing, and project labor agreements and local hire for public works and projects receiving public funds. Moreover, the LA County Fed and LAANE have successfully built enduring and deep community-labor alliances to elect progressive majorities to local government and to win organizing rights for service sector workers in health care, hospitality, food services, building services and major airports and convention centers. At LAX where there are more than 50,000 workers, union density has increased from 40% to 80% over the last decade as a consequence of the L.A. living wage campaign. Newly organized service sector workers invariably have become voters and precinct walkers and strongly supported Antonio Villariagosa who was elected mayor in 2005. Mayor Villariagosa in turn, has supported numerous regional equity policy initiatives including a community benefits agreement at LAX, a campaign to organize short haul truck drivers and to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Port of Los Angeles, and a $1 billion dollar housing bond for homeless shelters and affordable housing. Faith and community organizing networks like the Gamaliel Foundation are also building regional equity social movements and coalitions across metropolitan regions. Affiliates of the Gamaliel Foundation in Minneapolis-St Paul, St. Louis, Kansas City, Detroit and elsewhere have focused on metropolitan transit systems and transit equity. These organizations have won commitments to build mass transit stations in poor communities that were not originally planned; successfully organized and lobbied local government to encourage mixed-use development, good jobs, and affordable housing nearby transit stations; and won increased funding to restore cuts to municipal bus services in both the inner city and outer suburbs. Gamaliel affiliates in numerous metropolitan regions are scaling up to shape regional and national transportation policy, particularly by building regional wide organizations capable of influencing regional transportation agencies that approve new transit projects and set priorities for federal and state transportation spending at the regional level. In Missouri, Gamaliel affiliates in St. Louis and Kansas City won an unprecedented workforce equity requirement for hiring minority and female construction workers on new highway and transit construction, and set-asides for minority contractors. At this moment, we should not look to Washington D.C. for leadership in regards to urban policy. It is at the local and metropolitan levels that we find a new labor movement, multiracial faith and community based organizing networks, and emerging electoral majorities that are contending for power and developing the capacity to affect state and national policy.