Small Counties Can Make Big Impacts on Economic Mobility

The National Association of Counties (NACo) recently released a report detailing how American counties are uniquely positioned to improve economic mobility for residents. While the report identifies seven key areas that counties can focus on, it notes “county authority generally lends the most breadth in supporting financial security” because counties “can promote and educate residents on saving for emergencies or retirement, facilitate programs to promote homeownership, or enact workforce development programs to increase earning potential.” Such programs can help people bolster their personal resources and have a positive impact in terms of relative economic mobility, which measures how individuals rank in terms of income distribution over their lifetime, relative to their peers and parents.

NACo’s primary example comes from Garret County, Maryland, a 30,000-person county taking a 2-Generation Approach that “focuses on both children and family in a holistic manner” by “pairing access to high quality early childhood education with opportunities that strengthen the family core.” Since the program’s implementation in 2009 by local nonprofit group Garret County Community Action Committee, Inc. (GCCAC), the goal has been to improve relative mobility by ensuring children get the educational foundation they need to succeed long term, and parents get the coaching they need to find jobs, maintain stable careers, expand upon their education, or even just receive health insurance assistance.

By focusing on education—a key factor in determining a person’s economic mobility overtime—coupled with technological innovation, Garret County discovered a winning combination. GCCAC also created “proprietary data intake and outcome management software” that not only identifies various services for qualifying individuals, but also tracks the services provided and overall progress for participants. This new system has allowed them to reduce inefficiency overall by allowing people to enroll in multiple services at a time. And while there aren’t any hard numbers in the report to root Garrett County’s success in, the program has been successful enough that it’s inspired similar approaches in counties across the state of Maryland and the country at large.

A person’s ability to climb the economic ladder has always been an important part of the “American Dream”. But with economic mobility either slowing or stagnating across the US, it is reassuring to see a small county make a big impact on its citizens’ ability to help themselves become more financially secure and improve their children’s potential to succeed in the future at the same time. There are still economic issues looming on the horizon and there always will be. But NACo’s report and Garret County’s example provide good reminders that a small government’s ability to fix problems locally is now more important than ever.

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