Community Learning Series: Growth, Inclusion and Opportunity in the Local Economy

Susan Longworth
Senior Business Economist, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

On May 29, the Community Foundation hosted the first event in a new effort to elevate awareness, generate discussion and encourage action around issues of broad community importance. Nearly 60 people gathered over the lunch hour for the Community Learning Series: Growth, Inclusion and Opportunity in the Local Economy.

The Community Learning Series, which will take place 2-3 times each year, will be a variety of opportunities for community members to come together to learn, grow and collaborate. Series events will always be free and open to the public, and the topic will vary to address current community needs and concerns. The format and location of the Series will also vary to allow for discussion, information sharing and a diverse set of perspectives.

The first Community Learning Series focused on economic inclusion and featured Susan Longworth of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. As a Senior Business Economist, Susan conducts and presents research on community development and economic policy throughout the Midwest.

Susan spoke to local nonprofit staff, community leaders and philanthropists about her most recent publication, “Preliminary Findings from Focus Groups on Economic Inclusion in Smaller Cities.” The focus groups took place in Cedar Rapids and 12 other cities, all with economies historically concentrated in the manufacturing sector.

“We understood that economic inclusion was an aspirational imperative for these places,” Susan said. “But they were seeing that despite strategies aimed at economic growth, there were large segments of the population that were disconnected from these growth opportunities.” The goal of the study was to find out what challenges cities like Cedar Rapids face when trying to advance positive labor market outcomes for all residents.

While Susan’s presentation highlighted the challenges and importance of economic inclusion, leaders from the Ladd Library Opportunity Center, Inclusive ICR and Kirkwood Community College gave overviews of local efforts to take on those challenges. These initiatives involve multiple partners, and all three speakers expressed a strong desire to build additional partnerships that could help create strategic approaches to expanding economic inclusion.

One of the challenges these efforts face is one all cities in the focus group face: making the “business case” for economic inclusion. Even in a tight labor market, some employers are weary of economic inclusion and what, exactly, it may mean for them. Findings from Susan and other researchers suggest, however, that economic inclusion is not an act of charity or redistribution, but rather a part of a more stable and sustainable strategy for growth.

For more information on Susan’s research or the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, visit chicagofed.org.

Stay tuned for details on the next installment of the Community Learning Series.