Coping with Adversity: Regional Resilience and Public Policy

I’m in the midst of reading an interesting new(ish) book that should also interest my fellow economic developers.  Coping with Adversity:  Regional Economic Resilience and Public Policy (by Harold Wolman, Howard Wial, Travis St. Clair and Ned Hill) takes a deep dive into one of the most complex issues facing community builders:  why do some communities bounce back from economic crises while others stay distressed and challenged?  This comprehensive study examines the economic performance of every US metropolitan area between 1978 and 2007, with a particular focus on how they responded in the face of “shocks” (i.e., a natural disaster or a major economic hit such as plant closings).  Over this time frame, the authors identify more than 1,500 different employment shocks.  These shocks are shrugged off by nearly half of all regions as the economic hit does not trigger a wider downturn.   For those regions that do face a downturn, 65% recover within four years as they return to previous rates of economic growth.   A smaller share of regions lack resilience and teeter into a longer term chronic economic distress.

The authors use this data and six detailed case studies of resilient regions (Charlotte, Grand Rapids, and Seattle) and distressed regions (Cleveland, Detroit and Hartford) to ask a critical question:  what works in promoting economic resilience?  This is a complex question—that’s why it takes a whole book to discuss!!  But, I’ll try to briefly summarize.  The authors find that there are no specific community characteristics or policies that ensure resilience—all communities face economic shocks and it’s unrealistic to expect immediate recovery.   But more resilient places tend to have a better educated workforce, more industry diversity among their export oriented sectors, and a perceived business-friendly climate, including right-to-work laws.   In terms of policy, they find that state and local economic development programs appear to have a limited short term effect in addressing economic shocks. However, these policies do matter over the longer term, as they serve to improve a region’s overall economic competiveness and community assets.

My cursory summary doesn’t do justice to this very extensive and detailed analysis.  The authors are all based in academia, but bring a practitioner’s perspective to the issues.   This is not a dry academic tome—it’s a very readable, compelling, and realistic look at challenges caused by economic shocks and the real life difficulties of responding and recovering.