The recession is over, but the economic crisis continues. Why? The United States is in the midst of a major transformation of its economy.
Gone is the economic growth that was fueled by easy credit, Wall Street financial gamesmanship, speculation and debt. During this generational transformation, technology, health, sciences, biotechnology and other emerging industries are driving economic growth. Perhaps the most fascinating of these industries is the one that is comprised of so-called “green”, “clean-tech” or “sustainable” businesses that provide access to renewable energy sources, energy saving products and services, alternative energy sources, and the services, products, systems and processes created to reduce the consumption of carbon fuels.
New green businesses are being launched daily. In the New York-metropolitan region, it is projected that the number of green jobs will grow from 25,000 in 2006 to nearly 200,000 by 2038[i]. Commercial property owners and homeowners are purchasing more and more energy saving products and services. The greening of America will reduce harmful emissions from carbon fuels, lessen our reliance on foreign oil, and lead to energy independence.
The greatest potential for growth in the green economy is in low and moderate income communities. These communities have the largest number of homes with inefficient window and heating systems, insulation that needs replacement, and older, energy-greedy lighting. Poor communities represent the largest potential market for affordable energy-saving solutions.
Poor communities have the highest unemployment, lowest educational attainment, lowest number of business starts, fewest sustainable businesses and lowest indices of private investment. For all the reasons outlined here, these communities stand to gain the most from green job training, green job creation, and green business startups. And since the growth potential is the greatest in these communities, green investments in poor communities can lift the entire U.S. economy.
Why, then, is capital not rushing to make green investments in poor communities? To begin with, when it comes to energy in the United States, carbon-based fuels are “king” in terms of market capitalization and government subsidies. Investment in renewable energy and all things green is growing, but most of this growth is among the affluent. High upfront costs make green products (like solar panels) unaffordable in poor communities. Add to these factors the historic lack of investment in communities with concentrated poverty (race, fear, and the availability of many more affluent communities) and you have a perfect storm of reasons for “green” economic growth to bypass poor people.
Transformational change in poor communities is unlikely to occur unless it is led by organizations and individuals who understand the strengths, weaknesses, assets and liabilities of these communities as well as the dynamics of the emerging green economy. With their experience and organizational capacity, faith-based and nonprofit groups are well-positioned to assume this role. To lead such a transformation, however, these organizations must see green initiatives as strategies to achieve social justice objectives. They must follow the example of the residents of Harlan County, Kentucky and embrace “going green” as the best way possible to reduce poverty, stabilize affordable housing stock, eliminate joblessness, and create wealth for low and moderate income stakeholders.
How? Faith-based and nonprofit organizations can begin community transformation by “greening” the facilities that they own. Low cost energy saving strategies like energy efficient light bulbs and insulation can save hundreds of dollars annually. Moderately priced upgrades like energy efficient windows, boilers, water heaters, and appliances can lower costs even more. Major renovations like installing solar panels have higher up-front costs, but reduce energy costs for decades. By lowering operating costs, green building upgrades allow financial resources to be devoted to mission-focused purposes instead of higher utility bills.
Knowledge gained from green building upgrades can lead nonprofits and faith-based groups to direct their unemployed or underemployed constituents to the growing number of green job training opportunities. Some groups may launch their own green jobs initiatives. Other organizations can structure innovative business models that help low income residents create wealth, like the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio. They can form partnerships with established businesses, academic institutions, and regional nonprofits that understand the market potential for green building upgrades in poor communities and need local organizational partners to help them realize their goals. These partnerships can lead to the creation of new green businesses in weatherization, food systems, native horticulture, and sustainable manufacturing.
Faith-based organizations and community based nonprofits are institutions that have longevity and a proven capacity to serve low and moderate income populations. They are mission-focused in the pursuit of strategies to achieve social justice, spiritual development, community and economic development, and the elimination of health care disparities. Collectively they generate hundreds of millions of dollars each year to pay their staffs, operate their buildings and pursue their missions and ministries. By conducting “green” economic and community development initiatives, community based nonprofits and faith-based organizations can achieve social justice objectives and lead transformation in the communities they serve.