Do Economic Development Policies Matter? Lessons from Cleveland and Pittsburgh

I’ve been a long-time subscriber to Economic Development Quarterly, the leading academic journal for us economic development policy wonks.  I typically find helpful research in every issue, but the August 2021 issue is particularly useful.  It contains an interesting policy debate on a very big question:  do economic development programs make a difference? And, if so, how?  

The issue focuses on the comparative trajectories of Cleveland and Pittsburgh as they have tried to revitalize after the loss of major manufacturing anchors in the 1980s.  The lead analysis, from MIT’s Ben Armstrong, claims that Pittsburgh has fared better thanks to far-sighted state policies that centered on the role of area universities (especially the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon) in supporting revitalization.  Experts on the Cleveland and Pittsburgh regions offer their own views.  To briefly summarize, they note that state policy in Pennsylvania, while effective, did not just focus on university programs. Meanwhile, in Cleveland, area universities may have lacked the capacity found in their Pittsburgh-area counterparts.  So, state policy matters but the effects are not one dimensional or limited to one set of institutions, such as area universities.

This very brief summary doesn’t do justice to the discussions, which are well worth reading. My primary takeaway is that effective state industrial policies make a big difference in shaping regional economic trajectories.  That’s true in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and beyond.   You can access issue on-line here.   The introductory essay, “Policy vs. Luck in Pittsburgh and  Cleveland’s Economies,” is available to all, but the other articles are sadly posted behind a firewall.