President Trump is making a big push to return manufacturing to American shores. Communities that have traditionally been centers for manufacturing in the United States have been hurting for decades. Jobs that once supported a comfortable middle-class lifestyle with little more than a high school education have all but disappeared. Those jobs have been taken over by cheaper labor or automation. A lot of that cheaper labor lives in other countries, and free trade has enabled companies to relocate their factories where the cheap labor is while importing the goods without incurring additional costs. Unfortunately, foreign labor is not the only force that has destroyed our manufacturing communities, the rise of high tech manufacturing requires fewer people, but who are more skilled than manufacturing of the past, and states have engaged in titanic battles to poach manufacturing jobs from other states.
Preserving manufacturing communities by increasing import tariffs and encouraging people to “Buy American” will not be enough. These efforts do nothing to keep cities and states from taking jobs from other communities in the United States, and they don’t address the need for higher skilled manufacturing laborers. Simply keeping jobs in America isn’t enough. Moving jobs from one city to another while keeping them in America will not benefit our communities themselves. We must find better ways to keep jobs and wealth in each of our communities.
This is where buy local is different from Buy America. Buying locally-produced products that are sold in locally-owned stores is a key strategy for building local wealth. Every dollar spent locally is a dollar of wealth retained in the community. The alternative is for that wealth to leak into other communities while making the local community poorer. This is the community expression of the saying, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”
Unfortunately, few communities can produce every good and service needed by its residents. Today, most communities can’t even produce enough food to feed all of their residents, let alone produce the complex machinery our modern world relies upon like cars and computers. However, most metro areas do have large enough consumer bases and can develop enough manufacturing capacity to satisfy a majority of the area’s needs, including food, textiles, and machined and molded goods. So it may not be possible to buy goods made in your local community, but you can buy goods made in your metro area. As long as each town within a metro area can produce something else the other towns in the area need, then the net result is that wealth will be retained in each community.
The production of goods is only half of the challenge when trying to keep a community’s wealth local, though. Where goods are purchased also matters. If we are buying goods produced within the metro region overall, we must go to the extreme by shopping at stores owned by our neighbors. We must aim to keep our wealth not just in our community, but within our very neighborhood.
Harvest Fresh Farmers Market is a grocery store just down the street from my house. It’s owned by a couple who live in my community, who understand what the community needs, and know where the opportunities are. For years, my neighbors have been asking for a Trader Joe’s to come to town. There are Trader Joe’s in the towns in either direction, but few people wanted to drive that far out of their way. Knowing this, the owners of Harvest Fresh started exploring opening their own market through our local Facebook group. Through their efforts, they were able to fill a long vacant storefront in a rundown shopping center, and in so doing they’ve brought new life to the center and provided the community with they type of store we’ve been asking for for years.
These types of small, locally owned stores are vital to retaining local wealth. For towns to enable and sustain locally owned stores, they must provide appropriate storefronts that residents can shop at without going out of their way. Ideally, these types of small shops should be located within walking distance of enough people to sustain them. These storefronts need to be small and simple, not Class A retail space designed for national chains with their higher prices. And it is very rare that a locally owned store is a destination in itself, so stores need to be located with enough density and variety to allow the aggregate of the stores to become a destination. In such an arrangement, a cluster of locally owned stores becomes something like a department store, if each department was owned by a separate owner.
Communities must be designed appropriately if they wish to retain their wealth. They must have small shops, close to where people live, that are easily accessible on foot or bike. These shops must sell goods produced within the metro region, and the community itself must make enough goods to sell throughout the region. This will serve to increase the wealth of the community as a whole, while insulation the community and region from the turbulence of the broader economy.
[Note: This is one article in a longer series on the local economy, part of a larger look at how local communities can address global issues related to climate change, housing affordability, the local economy, the fiscal solvency of cities, and public health.]
(Top photo by Mike Petrucci)