Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed a bold, new plan to address the region’s ever-widening wealth gap, income inequality and other economic disparities on Tuesday, January 29 at Commissioners Court. Citing the urgent need for inclusive economic growth policies that will strengthen both the local economy and local communities, Commissioner Ellis initiated the discussion to create a Department of Economic Opportunity and Equity, which would implement economic policies and initiatives focused on fair and equitable county contracting, workforce development, community business programs, community-based economic tax incentives, and workers’ rights.
“The county needs to be thinking strategically and holistically about our long-term plan for economic growth while also directly addressing our region’s growing economic inequality, which disproportionately impacts women and communities of color. This Department would be responsible for making sure that economic policies are in place that include every community, every family, and every person in our economic growth and prosperity,” Commissioner Ellis said.
Guided by the principles of equity, fairness and inclusion, the proposed Department of Economic Opportunity and Equity would be responsible for creating a long-term Harris County economic development plan; overseeing tax incentive programs; administering community business development programs; facilitating access to capital, loans and grants; protecting workers’ rights and developing the region’s workforce through job training and creation. By consolidating these responsibilities under one department, the county would be better positioned to
coordinate county functions and utilize resources to increase people’s access to opportunity in all communities and support economic development that is financially, socially, and environmentally sustainable.
“In many of our communities there are more obstacles than opportunities to meaningfully participate in our local economy. Lower-income communities don’t have the access to good jobs or workforce training. Hard-working people can’t earn enough to support their family’s basic needs, much less save for the future or a rainy day. Minority and women business owners operate at the margins and struggle to compete on a fair playing field,” Commissioner Ellis said, explaining the economic challenges that many Harris County residents face. “This department will help address these disparities and remove barriers to opportunity so that everyone has a fair chance to succeed in our economy and earn a livable wage.”
There is support in Harris County for public initiatives to address and mitigate economic inequality, which is a growing problem for the region. The 2018 Houston Area Survey by Rice University’s Kinder Institute noted that the majority of respondents, when questioned about the “role of government in expanding economic opportunity and reducing the impact of concentrated disadvantage,” expressed support for effective public initiatives aimed at reducing inequality.
“We clearly have a social, economic and moral mandate to launch the Department of Economic Opportunity and Equity,” Commissioner Ellis said. “It is county leadership’s duty to address our region’s growing inequality, protect our long-term economic health and increase access to economic opportunity in every community.”
Several members of the public waited all day to testify in favor of establishing such a department. Commissioners Court voted unanimously in favor of working together, along with experts, to produce a report in the next 30 days.Commissioner Ellis concluded, “This is an important first step. I look forward to working with my colleagues on Commissioners Court and other stakeholders to expand economic opportunity in Harris County and develop inclusive economic policies that work for everyone because they include everyone.”