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Expanded and updated each section to reflect recent developments in Community Economic Development financing, funding, and education. Citations and bibliography updated.

Updated on 4 November 2013. The previous version of this content can be found here.
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Community Economic Development

Abstract and Keywords

Community economic development (CED) is an integrated and community-driven approach to development aimed at generating wealth, capabilities, and empowerment in low-income and low-wealth communities. Nonprofit organizations partner with public and for-profit interests to develop social and economic investment strategies for community economic renewal and revitalization. Social workers in CED engage in interdisciplinary work in community organizing, leadership development, program development and implementation, social-service management, and policy advocacy. To achieve large and sustainable success, CED requires solidarity with and investment in poor communities by society as a whole.

Keywords: asset building, community development, economic development, sustainable development, social capital, social development, community practice

Community economic development (CED) is an integrated and community-driven approach to development that aims to build wealth, capabilities, and empowerment in low-income and low-wealth communities (Midgley, 1995). The CED approach addresses structural inequality through community engagement and interventions that promote social and economic development in communities (Rubin & Sherraden, 2004; Sherraden & Ninacs, 1998).

Community economic development has roots in the work of early settlement houses and mutual aid societies and was influenced by civil rights movements of the 20th century and advances in international community development (Halpern, 1995; Midgley, 1995; von Hoffman, 2012). Persistent disinvestment, discrimination, neglect, and exclusion convinced leaders that development would have to be actively organized and promoted from within communities. Nonprofit organizations took the lead, with for-profit and public partners, in developing housing, businesses, employment, and social services. In the United States, aided by federal policies and programs, such as the War on Poverty programs in the mid-1960s and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, early successes included modest increases in ownership among the poor and minorities (Braunstein, 2007; Halpern, 1995; Immergluck, 2004).

Beginning in the 1980s, changes in domestic economies driven by globalization, persistent forms of discrimination, and growing inequality exacerbated by funding cutbacks contributed to challenges faced by poor communities (Conley, 1999; Massey & Denton, 1993; Oliver & Shapiro, 2006; Sassen, 1998; Venkatesh, 2006; Wilson, 1996). In response, CED practitioners adopted intermediary roles, directing resources and technical assistance to poor communities and attempting to reverse the flow of capital out of communities (Carr & Tong, 2002; Ferguson & Stoutland, 1999; Murphy & Cunningham, 2003). The economic recession of 2008, which resulted in high rates of home foreclosures in low-income and minority communities, further exacerbated inequality and poses even greater challenges to CED practice (Bocian, Li, Reid, & Quercia, 2011).

In recent years, communities have pursued CED as a part of broader comprehensive community initiatives. Comprehensive community initiatives are comprehensive, place-based, community-building efforts (Kubisch, Auspos, Brown, & Dewar, 2010). Funded by local and national foundations, as well as the federal government (Smith, 2011), comprehensive community initiatives bring together the work of human services and economic development to support neighborhood revitalization (Kubisch et al., 2008).

Theories and Models

Community economic development attempts to “humanize” capitalism by buffering the effects of the market through regulation, subsidies, and social innovation. According to Halpern (1995), CED is a “model for communities to regain a measure of control over capital and balance its use for private and public purposes” (p. 142).

Although there is no integrated theory of CED, it is based on three basic premises (Wiewel, Teitz, & Giloth, 2008). One premise of CED is the importance of building financial and tangible assets in communities. In this sense, CED aims to help reverse a historical legacy of oppression, discrimination, and public policies that have denied, discouraged, and appropriated wealth from poor and minority communities (Butler, 1991; Gordon Nembhard & Chiteji, 2006; Oliver & Shapiro, 2006). At the community level, investments in families, housing, employment, businesses, infrastructure, and green space build community and household assets.

Another premise of CED is the importance of building social capital and civic capacity. Social capital is the bonds of solidarity and trust among people that lead to reciprocity and increased access to resources. Social capital is a form of capital interchangeable with financial and human capital (Portes & Mooney, 2005). As social capital increases through CED, community residents may be better prepared to realize and control capital for community benefit and to build capacity for subsequent development (DeFilippis, 2001a; Woolcock, 1998). Civic capacity refers to the social and political ability of communities to build, maintain, and mobilize coalitions to solve community problems (Stone, Henig, Jones, & Pierannunzi, 2001).

Finally, to achieve broad-based economic development that benefits low-income and low-wealth communities, CED practice includes grassroots organizing, legal advocacy, and coalition building (Cummings, 2002; Murphy & Cunningham, 2003; Rubin & Rubin, 2007). In these ways, CED empowers communities in challenging an unfettered free market, aiming for development through social and economic investment and economic justice (Midgley & Livermore, 2006).

Community Economic Development Strategies

Historically, CED began with housing development, but expanded to include microfinance, community finance, commercial and industrial development, social services, and job creation, training, and placement (Ferguson & Dickens, 1999; Murphy & Cunningham, 2003). In recent years, CED practitioners also included sustainable development and environmental justice (Solitare & Lowrie, 2012). Organizations often combine approaches to address community problems in a more comprehensive way and, increasingly, incorporate evaluation that measures outcomes and impacts from the start.

Affordable housing strategies for rental, ownership, and co-ownership increase household assets, provide construction and other jobs, and contribute to family and neighborhood stability. Housing development can reverse economic deterioration, increase the local tax base, and improve community safety and local pride. Some communities adopt land trusts, historic districts, and housing trust funds.

Business renewal and development takes several forms, such as business clusters and incubators, microenterprises, social enterprises, and local and green business associations, which provide goods and services to the local community and generate a larger tax base (Balkin, 1989; Hess & Winner, 2007; Sherraden, Sanders, & Sherraden, 2004). Further, business development may increase local ownership, employment, and economic and social investments by local entrepreneurs, as well as safety and community pride.

Community finance and microfinance support community development initiatives, social enterprises, financial inclusion, anti–predatory lending campaigns, and regulatory initiatives (Benjamin, Rubin, & Zielenbach, 2004; Brown, 2008; Caskey, 1994, 2005; Squires, 2004). Local finance organizations—such as community development finance institutions and mainstream banks—invest in housing and other local development (Ridley-Duff & Bull, 2011). The CED programs also build financial capability in financially vulnerable households, including people with low incomes, minorities, people with disabilities, older adults, women affected by domestic violence, children, immigrants, and others (Sherraden, 2013). Activities include quality formal financial services; homeowner counseling and foreclosure prevention; financial education, counseling, and mentoring; tax assistance and help filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit; and savings programs, such as Individual and Child Development Accounts, and savings circles (see, for example, Barr, 2012; Collins & O’Rourke, 2009; Retsinas & Belsky, 2005; Sherraden, 2011; U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2011).

Workforce development and employment programs focus on creating businesses, helping people develop job skills and career paths, locate jobs, and find means of transportation; retaining employed residents; and combating discrimination (Dickens, 1999). Some CED programs focus on training employees or creating internships in community-based businesses and social services.

When environmental issues are incorporated into CED, a more holistic approach to “community-based sustainable economic development” (Bullard & Johnson, 2000, p. 559) can emerge. Addressing local issues such as sustainable development and environmental cleanup catalyze broader CED efforts (Carter, 2006; Rogge, Davis, Maddox, & Jackson, 2005). For example, transit-oriented development may generate use of public transit, healthy lifestyles, and access to jobs (Belsky & Fauth, 2012). Urban greening and community gardens may engage local citizens, nonprofits, and public officials in collective CED action (Hess & Winner, 2007). Brownfield redevelopment can be another form of locally driven CED, as degraded environments are converted into viable economic resources for local communities (Dull & Wernstedt, 2010; Solitare & Lowrie, 2012).

Finally, CED strategies include quality education, health care, and human services, such as day care, youth development, and social services. Education, health care, and human services have become more prominent strategies as CED is integrated into broader comprehensive community initiatives that combine people- and place-based strategies (Belsky & Fauth, 2012; Kubisch et al., 2008). For example, New York’s Office of Financial Empowerment is integrating financial help for residents of the poorest city boroughs into human services (NYC Office of Financial Empowerment, 2011).

Types of CED Organizations

Community economic development organizations may be for-profit, public, or nonprofit organizations whose missions address community economic and social development. However, nonprofit organizations form the backbone of CED work. Projects may be owned by CED organizations wholly, in a cooperative, or in partnership with private or public interests. As partnerships form and spawn new organizations, the boundaries across for-profit, nonprofit, and government organizations become murky. This blurring has contributed to growth of social enterprises and the so-called “social economy” (Light, 2006).

Social action groups, neighborhood associations, cooperatives, human service organizations, and other types of community organizations engage in CED, but community development corporations are explicitly devoted to CED (Peirce & Steinbach, 1990; Vidal, 1992; Walker, 2002). Community development corporations bring together local residents and leaders (along with representatives of business and the public sector) and community development professionals to engage in planning and implementation. The organizations themselves employ people with diverse training and background, including community residents and leaders, housing specialists, financial experts, business developers, and social-service professionals. Although CED aims to engage local residents, evidence on community control is mixed, suggesting that although the community may have a voice, the poorest tend to be less well represented than the more powerful, including professionals and business stakeholders (Stoutland, 1999). Some scholars suggest severing the link between community development corporations and community organizations in a way that allows community development corporations to pursue development objectives and permits community organizations to focus on organizing and build local power (Stoecker, 2008).

Funding for CED comes from public and private sources. Public funding is direct (such as health reform, transportation, and charter-school financing) and indirect (such business tax credits and Earned Income Tax Credits). Private funding comes from foundations and individuals. National intermediary organizations—such as Local Initiatives Support Corporation, Enterprise Community Partners, Living Cities, Opportunity Finance Network, and NeighborWorks—support CED efforts and also provide financial and technical assistance. Community Development Financial Institutions are specialized financial institutions that serve lower income communities, such as community development credit unions, community development funds and banks, community foundations, and unregulated venture capital funds (Murphy & Cunningham, 2003;

The Potential of CED and Challenges for Sustained Development

Community economic development uses an array of social investment strategies that build community capacity, encouraging communities to address current challenges and create sustainable resources for future development (Nussbaum, 2002). Poor communities possess actual and potential strengths that are a basis for development (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).

Although CED initiatives have achieved noteworthy success in generating innovations and contributing to local development, CED programs are frequently fragile, small, and vulnerable. Public and private resources are often lacking for CED in poor communities, whereas wealthier communities benefit from an array of public and private investments, such as grants, credit, tax subsidies, infrastructure outlays, and services (DeFilippis, 2001b). As a community development approach, CED is unable to solve the core issues of poverty and exclusion on its own, the origins of which lie in forces well beyond the borders of poor communities (Brown, 2008; Halpern, 1995; Stoecker, 2008).

Thus, a social and economic justice perspective demands more than CED. For CED to achieve large and sustainable successes, resource distribution, regulation, and consumer protection are essential (Barr, 2012; Kubisch et al., 2008; Sherraden, 1991). This includes tangible resources (for example, assets, infrastructure, social assistance), as well as intangible resources (for example, social status and civil, property, and political rights) that form the basis for economic strength and political agency. The success of CED requires a vision of solidarity and investment in poor communities.

Roles of Social Work

Social workers bring to CED valuable knowledge about how to work with low-income and low-wealth communities and residents (Weil, 2004). They are effective in building cultural competence and community participation, they aim for inclusion and equity for vulnerable groups, and they have essential skills in organizing, leadership development, direct practice, social-service management, policy advocacy, and research (Rubin & Rubin, 2007; Weil, 2004). The interdisciplinary focus of CED also requires that social workers develop skills in areas that are not always part of the social-work curriculum, including resource development, financial education and management, consumer law, tax policy, advanced technology, and urban planning (Birkenmaier, Sherraden, & Curley, 2013; Rubin & Sherraden, 2004). Social workers also can play a role in research and evaluation, including the use of multiple methods, geocoded data, and participatory research (Brown, 2010; Coulton, Chan, & Mikelbank, 2011; Minkler, Garcia, Rubin, & Wallerstein, 2012). Looking ahead, social workers have the opportunity and potential to play key leadership roles in community social and economic development, a vital area of community practice (Weil, 2004).


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                                                                                                                                          The authors are grateful to Herbert Rubin for inspiration and guidance.