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Joint Statement by the Southern Economic Advancement Project and Brookings on Regional Commissions Reports

Scholars and researchers with the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at the Brookings Institution and the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) recently met with federal co-chairs of the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) and Southeast Crescent Regional Commission (SCRC) to share outcomes of their recent reports, highlighting the opportunities for economic growth, poverty reduction, and capacity building in persistently poor regions in the South. 

The Promoting Development in the Black Belt Region: A Plan for the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission and Defining Distress: Lessons from the Federally Chartered Regional Commissions reports provide recommendations and actions that can drastically alter the economic resilience of communities throughout the Southeast; one that is equitable and sustainable. In an environment of diverse local economies and capacity, these two reports serve as guides to unlock the transformational potential that the regional commissions hold for underserved communities across the South.

The Promoting Development in the Black Belt Region report, co-authored by five scholars for the Southern Economic Advancement Project, explores the recent creation of the SCRC, the context in which it must operate, and the lessons it can learn from prior efforts. It presents a series of recommendations targeted at maximizing the commission’s impact through capacity-building, community voice, and an organizational infrastructure that centers equity.

SEAP’s report examines some of the SCRC’s most significant challenges, specifically its task of advancing a region with historic economic and social inequities. The authors argue that the structure and operations of the SCRC must account for the exceptionality of the region, including its underdevelopment; limited local capacity to implement policy; racialized local, state, and regional politics; and persistent generational poverty.

The Defining Distress report, co-authored by Tony Pipa and Natalie Geismar from the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution and Professor Heather M. Stephens of West Virginia University, examines the definitions and uses of “economic distress” used by the three active, multi-state, federally chartered regional commissions – the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, and the Northern Border Regional Commission – to inform federal policy and practice in reaching vulnerable rural communities. It highlights how metrics can target resources and enable the effectiveness of programming and relationships. 

The report also proposes three considerations to help refine the meaning and use of “distress” and improve the effectiveness of rural policy:

  1. Develop a normative framework for defining distress to be explicit in identifying and matching policy objectives to definitional characteristics and uses.
  2. Improve transparency about the specific communities receiving funds, their defining characteristics, and the implications of describing distress in a particular way.
  3. Engage potential recipients to learn from their experiences with different distress definitions and eligibility requirements and to get their guidance on the extent to which particular indicators and approaches meaningfully reflect the realities of their communities.

We are excited about the opportunity to support the two new federal co-chairs as they undertake the critical work and invest public resources to strengthen the Southeast’s economic resilience and the well-being of Southern communities, businesses, and –  most importantly – families.

Promoting Development in the Black Belt Region: A Plan for the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission, authored by Richard Doner, Emory University and Georgia Chapter of Scholars Strategy Network; Charles Hankla, Georgia State University and Georgia Chapter of Scholars Strategy Network; Michael Rich, Emory University and Georgia Chapter of Scholars Strategy Network; Gloria Bromell Tinubu, Tuskegee University and GBT Associates; and Veronica Womack, Rural Studies Institute, Georgia College & State University.

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