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Perspective | Magazine

Local leaders have a better chance of fixing the economy than Washington does

Here’s why and how shared prosperity will return to America city by city, not from Washington.


You don’t have to pay much attention to the news to know that the US economy is really helping only part of the population to prosper: mostly the people who run and invest in large companies. The lack of shared prosperity has become our most pressing economic, social, and political problem.

Many American voters are looking to Washington to fix this. They are likely to be disappointed. Since the 1970s, generations of senior policy makers have failed to invest well in “the commons,” shared resources — like schools, infrastructure, and training programs — that support broad-based prosperity. As global supply chains opened up and technological progress accelerated, we did not keep pace. As a result, the economic prospects of the many Americans who relied on the commons dimmed. Regardless of your political views, what odds would you give that the White House and Congress will agree to make the deep investments in training, education, and infrastructure needed to help everyday Americans earn a better living?


Fortunately, help is on the way. Local leaders in cities and towns across the country are succeeding even as national politicians are flailing. These leaders come from every sector of society — local government, business, nonprofits, schools, universities, labor unions, faith-based organizations, and others. And, most important, they are getting these sectors to work together in new ways to restore shared prosperity.

These local cross-sector leaders matter for three reasons. First, many of the critical elements of the commons, such as schools and workforce skills, are fundamentally local. Second, local leaders have to show progress or suffer the consequences in ways that national politicians do not. Third, because no single sector or institution is responsible for the commons, restoring the commons is inherently a cross-sector sport. To upgrade skills smartly, for instance, you need executives, who know the skills they need; educators, who can teach employees well; and local policy makers, who have convening power.


Here in Boston we can look to several examples of cross-sector cooperation. One of them is the Boston Basics, the brainchild of Ron Ferguson at Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative. Ferguson recognized that many young parents in the city’s poorer neighborhoods aren’t familiar with parenting techniques that boost brain development during the first three years of a child’s life. Partnering with the Black Philanthropy Fund, Mayor Walsh’s office, Boston Medical Center, and WGBH, Boston Basics developed videos and pamphlets to teach five evidence-based principles that parents can use to help with their kids’ development, like “read and discuss stories.” It distributes the material through dozens of nonprofits and faith-based organizations. Launched early in 2016, the program has already reached thousands of parents and kids.

Another example is InnerCity Weightlifting, a seven-year-old nonprofit that teaches ex-convicts from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods to work as personal trainers. Backed by local foundations, ICW worked with Microsoft and other tech companies to provide fitness training in company conference rooms, then opened its own gym in Kendall Square. Individuals who were disproportionately responsible for violence in Boston gained the skills, support, and social connections to stay out of jail and earn a living. Average wages among ICW’s trainers in Kendall Square exceeded $30,000 in 2016 — not enough to feed a family in Boston, true, but maybe enough to give someone a new start in life. Jon Feinman, who launched ICW as an MBA student at Babson College, is a model for cross-sector leaders who want to have an impact.


In manufacturing, which still makes up 8 to 11 percent of the economy in the various New England states, our region could look to Carroll County, Georgia, home of Southwire Corp. The company, a multibillion-dollar maker of cable and wire, hires only workers with at least a high school diploma. But a decade ago Stu Thorn, Southwire’s then-CEO, found that too few local students were graduating. Thorn partnered with the public schools and built a factory staffed almost entirely by at-risk students, who are given an incentive: As long as they attend classes, they can work a four-hour factory shift, for above the minimum wage. The program, 12 for Life, has lifted high school graduation and college matriculation rates for its participants. Positive peer effects have raised graduation rates for classmates. Because the students are highly productive, the factory makes money, which is reinvested in the program. Southwire has even opened a second 12 for Life factory.

To spread these ideas for boosting shared prosperity, my colleagues and I in Harvard Business School’s U.S. Competitiveness Project are bringing young civic leaders to campus and immersing them in a boot camp in cross-sector collaboration. Last June, we brought together emerging leaders from nine cities, including a group of 10 from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Chattanooga’s leaders have since launched their own version of Boston Basics and are working with the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce, a manufacturer, and local schools to start a program like 12 for Life.


I believe shared prosperity will return to America. But it will come city by city, not from Washington. And the people we will thank will not be the politicians we see on the national news, but young civic leaders — individuals with the will, skills, and connections to bridge divisions in our communities and rebuild the commons.

Jan Rivkin is a professor at Harvard Business School and cochair of its U.S. Competitiveness Project. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.