michelle-hollinger_web.jpgMaximizing the prosperity of any city or municipality is essentially what its leaders and elected officials are charged with accomplishing. Efforts to attract new businesses, reduce crime, improve educational opportunities, beautify communities, etc., all serve to enhance a community’s prosperity because prosperity encompasses financial well-being, as well as  the overall quality of life.

Economic development is for naught if the area’s residents are not in a position to patronize the stores, restaurants and entertainment venues available to them. An improved business community and an influx of residential developments in lower-income areas are necessary for progress and should be established; however, if the residents are unable to afford to live in the new housing or patronize the new businesses, gentrification is more likely to occur.

The outside-in approach where inner cities’ leadership facilitates the economic development of the business community and then expresses frustration with the lack of patronage from area residents makes for a fascinating juxtaposition. What is far more sensible is an inside-out approach that doesn’t abandon the economic development initiatives that are necessary for a vibrant community but combines them with genuine investment in the most valuable capital an inner city has: its human capital.

Economic development in inner cities that solely focuses on the creation of businesses, restaurants and retail venues is only part of the answer. Authentic economic development does that but it also includes efforts to expose residents to user-friendly information, ideas, principles and skills that can be used to increase their income, raise their quality of life and create prosperity.  The belief that low-income residents are unwilling, indifferent or incapable of prospering is a faulty assumption that perpetuates poverty and invites gentrification.

An inside-out approach is based on the premise that within a community there is a population of untapped potential poised to prosper if genuinely engaged with higher expectations, motivation and resources. Brilliant ideas for small businesses, books, inventions and a variety of vocational and professional careers are often unexpressed because many residents of inner city communities feel disenfranchised and possess a sense of fatalism, preventing them from dreaming – a prerequisite for prosperity. 

Cities such as Aventura, Coral Gables and Pinecrest are magnets for large retailers, upscale malls, restaurants of all price ranges and performing arts and entertainment venues because the residents are in the position to patronize them. For obvious reasons, leadership’s focus in these affluent areas is not on helping its already prosperous residents to improve their quality of life but to provide opportunities to enjoy it. A city’s offerings must match its residents’ wants and needs.

To that end, in order to successfully invest in maximizing the prosperity of the inner city, simultaneous efforts must occur to invest in maximizing the prosperity of the residents – children and adults. An investment in human capital must be an integral factor in an inner city’s effort to create a vibrant, thriving, urban community. This investment in human capital cannot be the business-as-usual provision of public assistance and referrals for services. That approach helps residents to manage their poverty, not rise above it.

Also, an authentic investment in human capital must not presume to know what is best for the residents. It must assume the role of a social archeologist determined to excavate the hidden treasure that inner city residents possess and to encourage their embrace of the out-of-the-box thinking and action required for achieving dreams.

In order for an inner city to thrive, there must be a collective embrace of its residents’ inner wisdom, inner gifts and inner purpose and the provision of sincere guidance and instruction on how to activate them. 

The alleviation of poverty begins with the belief that each person has a life purpose and that pursuing it is the most effective strategy for creating prosperity.

Michelle Hollinger is the president of The Institute for Authentic Social Work and the author of The ABCs of Authentic Work with Families; 7 Steps to Strengthen Your Family; and The Sisterhood Exchange.  For more information, visit authenticsocialwork.org