By Johnathan M. Holifield and Mike Green
America’s electorate and representatives don’t agree on much, but perhaps we all can agree on this: Our nation is in the grips of deep economic angst.
In recent years, the need to address the issues of income gaps, staggering wealth disparities and many Americans feeling economically left behind have increasingly gained traction across the country. We witnessed the “Occupy Wall Street” protest movement, reviewed groundbreaking scholarship on myriad economic disparities and experienced the surprising rise of leading presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders. Most improbable of all is the extraordinary support among the electorate for international real estate mogul and branding wizard Donald Trump, who is now president-elect of the United States. Each of these developments are considerably rooted in the distress that accompanies our present-day economic condition.
These economic concerns are heightened among Americans who have remained disconnected from our best education and economic opportunities for long periods of time. These include many women, Blacks, Latinos and small town and rural White populations. To adapt a phrase that’s popular with community activists, “If America catches cold, then disconnected Americans catch pneumonia!” In other words, whatever economic pain is felt by the nation overall is felt in an exponentially greater way in demographically and geographically underserved areas.
So, where can we go from here?
In his thoughtful op-ed, New York Times columnist, David Brooks summarizes a well-articulated path forward. He writes:
[T]he future of this country is not going to be found in protecting jobs that are long gone or in catering to the fears of aging whites. There is a raging need for a movement that embraces economic dynamism, global engagement and social support — that is part Milton Friedman on economic policy, Ronald Reagan on foreign policy and Franklin Roosevelt on welfare policy.
Brooks calls this alchemical blend of the political right and left a new American center. He is spot on. In today’s tech-driven, knowledge-based Innovation Economy, a promising future for America can be built along the path that Brooks describes.
Despite the political tectonic shift of the 2016 presidential election, the enduring personal characteristics, education attainment and monetizable capabilities that comprise what is required for Americans to achieve 21st century economic mobility, security and prosperity remain unchanged.
Alleviating broad economic anxiety must involve disconnected Americans accessing inclusive pathways to connect to today’s economy. For that to occur, we must improve our education and economic competitiveness, and cultivate higher performing Economic Athletes with the skills mastery, creativity, agility, resilience and stamina to win in this New Age of Innovation.
Make no mistake, our current trickle-down economic models have not delivered and cannot deliver either the quality or quantity of diverse, competitive assets that the nation needs. The premise of trickle-down is that the nation’s economic growth and prosperity will naturally flow to benefit all Americans, including the most disadvantaged populations. If we’ve learned anything in our careers—and what we know for sure—is that without intentionality to ensure the flow of economic prosperity inures to the benefit of all Americans, the best opportunities will not naturally reach disconnected Americans in underserved areas throughout the nation.
In effect, our trickle-down economic policies have inadvertently encouraged disconnected Americans to sit back and wait for others to get around to innovating and creating the job and business opportunities that we all need to prosper! This process conflicts with the very core of what it means to be American. Our nation’s founders didn’t wait for England to get around to conceding their inalienable rights; Black Americans didn’t wait for White Americans to get around to recognizing their human and civil rights; women didn’t wait for men to get around to admitting their equality; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans didn’t wait for straight Americans to get around to extending equal rights of American citizenship.
Americans don’t wait for opportunity. It’s just not part of our national character. Rather, we reach out, grab it, and do incredible things with it. So, why should disconnected Americans be encouraged to wait for others to act to secure our improved economic future and quality of life? The simple answer is they should not.
There is a vicious cycle here: Disconnected Americans are generally tertiarily regarded, or all together disregarded, in matters related to the nation’s best education and economic opportunities partly because historically they have been less competitive. Meanwhile, there is an absence of the kind of community infrastructure and systems that can help them to become educationally and economically more competitive. This cycle must be disrupted.
Reflecting this reality, a new American center can lead the way to transform our public and private sector approaches to national economic competitiveness from trickle-down to “push-down” and “pull-down” thrusts, as represented in the Inclusive Competitiveness® Framework.
This framework provides a much-needed complement to the customary trickle-down economic competitiveness policies and practices that are generally beyond the reach of disconnected Americans and have little effect on improving the capacity of their communities to successfully compete. By intentionally bolstering and enhancing existing advocacy, leadership, investment and services in disconnected communities, this new collaborative economic framework will deliver new productive community systems that align with top 21st century opportunities.
Buttressed with resilient, on-the-ground strategies, initiatives and programs, the framework can accomplish dual purposes: 1) empower and equip disconnected Americans to resolutely reach up and “pull-down” the nation’s best opportunities for themselves and 2) create new apparatuses for the stewards atop our nation’s education and economic superstructure to purposefully “push-down” the best opportunities toward disconnected Americans through proactive policies and practices intended to make such opportunities more visible, accessible and attainable.
A vital dynamic system is established when enlightened education and economic leaders intentionally build bridges and connecting points that lead up to economic opportunity (push-down policies) so that disconnected Americans can gain access to economic arenas in which they can actively compete (pull-down efforts), leveraging their own talents and skills to contribute value to and extract value from the national economy.
In the end, disconnected Americans will not prosper without more growth and development of the nation’s economy. Conversely, facing the inexorable march of demography and geography of opportunity, the nation’s economy is only temporarily and tenuously sustained without improved productivity of disconnected Americans. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, the economic future of America’s elite is “inextricably bound” to the capacity of our nation’s most disconnected populations to contribute to it. The wealthy cannot walk alone.
If a new American center can move us from trickle-down to “push-down” and “pull-down” economic policies and practices, then we can materially advance broad-based, 21st century economic inclusion and competitiveness to achieve shared prosperity across the U.S.
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Johnathan M. Holifield is Architect of Inclusive Competitiveness®, Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC and former running back with the Cincinnati Bengals. Learn more about his upcoming book here: The Future Economy and Inclusive Competitiveness®: How Demographic Trends and Innovation Are Changing the U.S. and Our Unique Opportunity for Shared Prosperity. Reach Johnathan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter: @TheTrimTabber
Mike Green is a Co-founder of ScaleUp Partners LLC, award-winning journalist and consultant on inclusion strategies in STEAM education, tech-based workforce development and high-growth entrepreneurship. Reach Mike at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @amikegreen2