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What If We Fly?: Innovative Ideas from the 2024 Just Economy Conference


I am all too accustomed to reading national news articles that assert our economy is doing just fine. These headlines often do not recognize the realities of those in our economy who are structurally excluded and underserved. I’m certain that I’m not the first or only person to ponder: “But for whom is the economy just fine?” With that question bouncing around in my mind, I made my way in early April to the 2024 Just Economy Conference in Washington, D.C.


The Just Economy conference is hosted annually by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition (NCRC) and is a dedicated space for professionals who are brought together and moved to action by all forms of justice - particularly economic and social justice. I met people from all over the country who are transforming communities through their work. The rooms I walked into were filled with subject matter experts, community advocates, and researchers who are at the cutting edge of providing high-quality and affordable housing in historically redlined communities, delivering targeted support and flexible capital to small business owners from traditionally underserved populations, and supporting workforce development programs in economically depressed communities. For the folks at the conference, the central question was: How do we create a fairer and more dynamic economy for everyone?


During the three-day conference, I encountered three innovative economic development ideas that stood out to me: community land trusts, baby bonds, and public banking. What struck me about the way speakers framed these practices was their novel construction and implementation.


Land Trusts and Complete Neighborhoods


The first breakout session I attended was titled Community Land Trusts: Building Complete Neighborhoods, which highlighted ways organizations are leveraging community land trusts to drive community economic development. Leaders from Rondo Community Land Trust and the Urban Land Conservancy explained how they’ve used community land trusts to take land out of the speculative market and provide stable, long-term, and sustainable pathways to real estate ownership for traditionally underserved residents and business owners in the community. Rondo Community Land Trust and other similar trusts emphasize justice in addition to affordable housing and wealth building. The panelists stressed the importance of taking housing from being a good, through which value is extracted, to a good that serves the community’s interests in perpetuity. That earned some applause from the crowd and inspired me to believe in a world where historically low-income communities can have stable housing and live in complete neighborhoods with adequate food access, job training, small businesses support, arts, culture, and recreational activities. 


Baby Bonds


During Two Sides of the Same Coin: Building a Suite of Policy Solutions for Long-term Wealth Building , a mechanism for ensuring that children born into poverty can build wealth and close the racial wealth gap was highlighted. Called Baby Bonds, these government-backed securities work by automatically enrolling children in a savings bond program at birth. Under the scheme, all children receive an income-based seed deposit, meaning that lower-income families receive larger deposits. Federal and/or state treasuries would invest and administer the funds, which would grow over time until recipients choose to access them when they become adults. At that point, they can use these funds to pay for higher education, homeownership, or entrepreneurship — three of the most proven ways to build wealth in the U.S.


I was familiar with baby bonds before this presentation, and I was excited to learn the concept is gathering steam in state houses across the country and that Connecticut has already passed and created its own statewide program. Close to 7,800 Connecticut newborns have been enrolled, with another 15,000 made eligible every year. This is exciting from an innovative state policy point of view, and from an impact standpoint as well.  


Public Banking


According to the FDIC, approximately 5.9 million Americans are "unbanked". Unbanked Americans must rely on money-transfers, prepaid credit cards, and other financial instruments that charge fees often at rates much higher than traditional banks. In on a session entitled “Banking on a Better Future: How Public Banking Can Transform the Financial Industry,” I learned how select cities and states, notably California, were creating public banking options to serve historically unbanked and underserved communities. A public banking network provides a desperately needed alternative for low-income communities that are often at the mercy of extractive financial institutions that profit by charging overdraft, monthly account, and other exploitative fees. 


These innovative ideas provide inspiration and concrete solutions that we can turn to address the historic inequities that exist in our economy. When I think about commentators who suggest these gaps in our economy are endemic and too knotty to fix, these are the solutions I hope that we can turn to.


I left the NCRC Just Economy Conference with a renewed imagination and a re-commitment to economic innovation. I asked myself a different “what if” question this time around. “What if we fly?” What if we innovate guided by values of equity and creativity with a process led by communities with a people-first approach? Imagine how much we could transform our economy for the better. I like that hypothetical “what if” much better.


 

Equity is an essential pillar of Fourth Economy’s work. Is your community or organization interested in approaching community planning with a creative, people-first approach? Let's chat. Reach out today!

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