Taking Us BackBut Not to Prosperity

Few people are against preserving and protecting Pennsylvania’s farmland and open space. And fortunately for us, between 86 and 94 percent of our state is undeveloped, depending on who you ask. But some well-intentioned activists think that when our neighbors decide to leave our urban centers for suburban or rural life, they are somehow contributing to our commonwealth’s economic demise.

So says the 2003 report, Back to Prosperity: A Competitive Agenda for Renewing Pennsylvania, from the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. Unlike some think tank reports that tend to collect dust on shelves, Back to Prosperity has spawned a number of efforts to lobby for the policy recommendations in the report.

There is a serious problem, however; the Brookings report’s recommendations are in fact “solutions in search of a problem.”

While the report accurately identifies many of the symptoms of Pennsylvania’s economic decline—low population, income and job growth, an aging population, and the out-migration of well-paying jobs and young families—its diagnosis of the cause is factually unsupported.

Brookings offers no evidence to support its conclusion that the lack of economic prosperity in Pennsylvania is the result of poor land-use planning and government giving citizens too much freedom in their “pursuit of happiness.”

Furthermore, the Brookings report failed to ask the obvious: Why are Pennsylvanians choosing to leave urban cities and older towns? But that should come as no surprise, because the answers would not have fit the shared agenda of the organizations that purchased the million dollar report.

With the financial largesse of the Heinz Endowments and William Penn Foundation, and the prominent role of the environmental group 10,000 Friends of Pennsylvania, the policy recommendations for bigger, more intrusive government and less individual freedom are predictable. But the participation of a respected national think tank has given new life to these tired ideas of centralized government planning and intervention.

While it is obvious to most observers why families are fleeing our urban centers—unsafe neighborhoods, poorly performing schools, oppressive taxes, and unnecessary regulatory barriers—at least some elected officials are embracing the non-sequitur conclusions of Back to Prosperity to advance their own agendas.

Gov. Rendell has hauled around his copy of B to P from public appearance to public appearance. Despite being the only study of its kind to contend that “urban sprawl” is the leading factor in explaining Pennsylvania’s economic woes, our governor is using it to advance an environmental and economic agenda of higher taxes, restrictive regulations, and bigger government.

The revival of the dormant State Planning Commission and the governor’s push for nearly a billion dollars to fund Growing Greener II are just two examples of his B to P agenda. Gov. Rendell is attempting to make the case that a better business climate will result from the higher business taxes and fees and deeper taxpayer debt needed to pay for his initiatives. To most job creators that prescription for economic growth doesn’t make much sense.

What does make sense, however, is for policymakers to directly and adequately address the real reasons families are fleeing urban cities: public schools that fail to educate their children, taxes that undermine job creation and discourage investment, regulations that ensnare entrepreneurs with costly red tape, and epidemic levels of crime that make neighborhoods unlivable.

Restricting the ability of families to escape these kinds of environments for a better quality of life is hardly a formula for a more prosperous Pennsylvania. In fact, the prosperity we all seek would only be hindered if the Brookings policy recommendations were implemented.

Erecting growth boundaries around cities, expanding corporate welfare programs, increasing government’s power to halt building projects, discouraging new industrial and business development, restricting residential housing choice, raising taxes to purchase private lands, and artificially increasing the costs of suburbanization will only unnecessarily accelerate Pennsylvania’s economic decline.

Restricting citizens’ lifestyle choices is not a viable alternative for saving Pennsylvania’s land and towns. The best way to reverse the “hollowing out” of our cities and historic communities is to make them more attractive. Therefore, the only option left is for policymakers to address the real reasons people are fleeing our urban centers. Until they do, families will continue to leave not just our cities, but our state as well.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president of the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), an independent, non-profit public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA.