“Amid the chaos and breakdown of our time, imagining such a thing as economic system change can seem daunting, overwhelming, impossible,” said Marjorie Kelly, a distinguished senior fellow at the Democracy Collaborative. “The truth is system change is already emerging all around us. It’s beginning in our own backyards, in the form of Community Wealth Building, a form of local economic development that transforms local economies through communities having direct ownership and control of their assets.”

Community Wealth Building has gained traction over the years, especially since Marjorie Kelly published her latest book, Wealth Supremacy, last September. Let’s take a closer look at this approach.

What is Community Wealth Building?

“When 50 percent of the population can’t put its hands on $1,000 in an emergency, and 50 percent of the private workforce has retirement assets of zero, wealth insecurity is a severe problem in this country, and we need a way to build wealth,” said Corey Rosen, founder of the National Center for Employee Ownership.

Community Wealth Building calls for a “great ownership transition” — shifting ownership from the hands of a few to many. Who owns and controls a city or town’s businesses, buildings, and other assets profoundly impacts community members’ health and wealth. So, Community Wealth Building calls for broadening ownership through diverse strategies like forming cooperatives, moving money to community banks, public banks, and credit unions, cultivating land trusts, and much more. This approach also reimagines how wealth is invested to serve community needs over building billionaires. With a shift in wealth comes a shift in power.

Image Credit: Democracy Collaborative

“[While] we’ve built superhighways for speculative investments, productive local investments travel dirt paths,” said Marjorie Kelly. “We need new infrastructure to make local and impact investing easy. Much of that innovation is coming at warp speed from the impact investing world, where countless funds are springing up to invest in marginalized communities, decarbonize buildings, and advance sustainable development goals.”

Rebalancing Wealth: Baby Bonds

Connecticut launched America’s first baby bond in 2023, depositing $3,200 in an account for each newborn enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program.  Over time, each account will grow to as much as $24,000 per child.  When these children reach 18, they can use this money for college, a downpayment on a home, to start a business, or to save for retirement. Baby bonds represent a long-term approach to reducing the wealth gap in future generations.

Learn more about Baby Bonds

The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute offers a compelling case in support of baby bonds, “Experts suggest that addressing equity and closing the racial wealth divide would add more than $2 trillion in GDP annually, increasing economic development and improving the health of the economy, which is an area of common ground for political parties. In general, making equitable adjustments to existing tax subsidies that disproportionately benefit the highest-income earners could generate enough savings to pay for baby bonds.”

Recirculating Wealth: Anchor Institutions

Another example of Community Wealth Building is Evergreen Cooperatives, which blends the economic power of anchor institutions with employee ownership. Anchor institutions are large nonprofits that, once established, usually stay in one place — think of hospitals, universities, and government entities.  By connecting the goods and services offered by locally owned businesses to the needs of anchor institutions, both the individual companies and the entire local economy benefit.  

In 2008, The Cleveland Model in Ohio started Evergreen Cooperatives with an employee-owned green laundry service to meet the needs of local hospitals.  Evergreen now includes four more cooperatives focusing on weatherization and manufacturing, plus an employee ownership investment fund.  Nationally, hospitals are coming together to explore Community Wealth Building through the Healthcare Anchor Network.

Learn more about Anchor Institutions

Spreading Wealth: Employee Ownership

Employee ownership, another Community Wealth Building strategy mentioned above, gives workers their own shares in the company they work for.  There are multiple forms of employee ownership, from employee stock ownership plans to worker cooperatives.

What is Employee Ownership?

King Arthur Baking Company in Norwich, VT, became 100% employee-owned in 2004.  Owners Frank and Brinna Sands wanted to retire, but without family members to take over the business, they turned to their employees to keep the company’s mission intact.  Workers earn company stock, giving them a path toward a better retirement.

“These jobs are not going to be sent overseas when it’s an employee-owned company,” said King Arthur employee-owner Rosie Wawrzyniak. “That’s why politicians, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on, they always support employee-owned companies. You know, people really care about getting meat from happy cows or happy chickens; why would you not want products from happy people? Customers benefit when they’re getting a better-quality product from happy people.”

“If you have time for just one book this summer, please read Marjorie Kelly’s Wealth Supremacy,” shared local economist Michael Shuman. “She’s an astute critic of what we are getting wrong in our economy, but she also has lots of ideas about what we can get right.”  Pick up your copy today! There’s so much more to learn about Community Wealth Building.

Learn along with us!

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