Commentary | Budget, Taxes, and Public Investment

EARN conference showcases progressive state policy agendas

After attending the annual convening of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) for 10 years, I had the pleasure last month of co-hosting the event in my new role as EARN Director. For the second year, EARN staff at EPI partnered with the Progressive States Network (PSN) to host the conference, which brought together EARN member groups from around the country, including state legislators, organizations working to improve the well-being of working families, and others that share EPI’s commitment to a progressive policy agenda.   

Each year, EARN staff seek input from network members on what topics they would like to see covered.  This year, the recession and related recovery efforts provided a clear focal point for the conference, and the choice of Detroit as the site of the conference seemed particularly appropriate. Michigan’s unemployment rate topped the nation at 15.2% in August, up 6.6 percentage points since August 2008.  Despite the enormous challenges facing Michigan and the entire nation as this “Great Recession” takes its  toll on families and communities, the EARN conference highlighted the fact that progressive researchers and advocates have an expansive array of policy options to improve the well-being of working families.   

Joining national partners as workshop presenters, EARN members demonstrated a depth and breadth of expertise across a wide range of policy areas. Perennial favorites such as “the Best of EARN” and the “EARN Book Review Expo” were joined by sessions advancing new policy ideas. The panel “Green Investments, Broadband, and Innovation with the Recovery Act” highlighted the experience in Washington state, and featured the insights of Good Jobs First’s Greg Leroy and PSN’s Julie Schwartz. Other panels addressed the policies that were needed to respond to the economic downturn and unemployment and to address fiscal health at the state level.

Given the diversity of work that EARN groups undertake, one of the strengths of the conference is that it addresses such a broad range of issues, from strengthening the manufacturing sector to securing guaranteed sick leave for workers. I really enjoyed the session articulating a vision for positive, proactive, progressive state economic development, featuring the work of Steve Herzenberg from the Keystone Research Center, Tim Bartik from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, and Bill Schweke from the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED). Herzenberg’s  presentation drove home how  a combination of sound research, strategic networking,  effective advocacy—and some good luck—had all helped to advance a workforce development strategy in Pennsylvania that connects workforce education and training programs to the critical needs of Pennsylvania’s key industries. Keystone’s ability to be seen as a relevant player in the world of state economic development has been assisted, in part, by its annual publication of a State of Working Pennsylvania report.  

Other conference highlights included a session led by Joel Rogers from the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, in which workshop participants, including Jeannine La Prad of Corporation for a Skilled Workforce and Daniel Luria of Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center presented a compelling case to address economic challenges on a regional level. In a later session, Joel Rogers articulated a powerful argument in favor of an agenda of so-called progressive federalism, which taps into the potential for state experimentation and learning to find solutions to national problems, without retreating from civil rights and a national affirmative state.  Rogers emphasized that the progressive movement can do much more to ensure that states act as positive and progressive “laboratories of democracy.” His leadership in this area provides a solid foundation on which EARN groups can build.

EARN groups featured prominently in several other sessions, including one on the economic impacts of the Recovery Act, led by Murtaza Baxamusa of the Center on Policy Initiatives; and another highlighting the need to protect working families from predatory lending scams, which was led by David Rothstein, Policy Matters Ohio. In shared sessions, EARN members and progressive state legislators strategized on policies that would ensure an economic recovery that achieves racial and economic equity, transforms the workforce, requires transparency and accountability, facilitates green investments and innovation, and benefits low- to moderate-income people. A complete listing of workshop sessions can be found here.

Several of the plenary speakers at this year’s conference also had close ties to the manufacturing sector.  Bob King, UAW vice president; Ed Montgomery, director of recovery for Auto Communities and Workers; and Scott Paul, executive director of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, addressed the opening night plenary session, and painted a stark but hopeful picture of American manufacturing.  Author and scholar, Ellen Bravo of the consortium Family Values at Work, highlighted the imperative of implementing a national family-friendly agenda, and Lisa Donner from Americans for Financial Reform presented a compelling case for reforming America’s financial system. Closing out the conference, Damon Silvers, a member of the Congressional Oversight Panel created to review the national financial regulatory framework, emphasized the need for federal action to ensure that the American financial system does not, in the future, falter as it did so dramatically leading into the current recession.