OSILI: Invest in social services and infrastructure

February 26, 2011

Vop OsiliA community’s basic infrastructure consists of physical resources like streets, sidewalks, utilities, telecommunication networks, transportation and public schools. It is considered by many to be the most vital part of economic growth. Infrastructure provides for the basic functions of a community that are necessary for economic development and, ultimately, reduction in poverty.

In our community, most of us share a fundamental belief in a society that is equitable and provides every member access to opportunity. Our elected leaders face choices on where to invest public funds for the greatest good. Economic development is the most sustainable method to reduce poverty, and one avenue toward that end is the long-term development and maintenance of a community’s infrastructure.

A large body of evidence suggests economic development in communities is linked with the quality and performance of existing infrastructure. While investing in infrastructure is costly, it must be seen in the context of a long-term plan for economic growth.

Studies also indicate there is a fundamental and debilitating drag on the economy of communities with deteriorating or underdeveloped infrastructure. With limited public funds, the question is how to balance the long-term infrastructure needs of all communities with the shorter-term needs of some and still have a measurable impact on reducing inequities of opportunity and income.

Research shows that development and maintenance of infrastructure has a multiplier effect in the long term. When companies are looking to build new facilities, the top three considerations for site selection are based on available infrastructure.

Our better-off communities, which have better-developed and maintained infrastructure, are more likely to see the benefits of new investment. A cycle begins to emerge in the form of rising property values, which lead to higher property taxes. Governing bodies then have incentive to invest in additional infrastructure development in those communities.

This encourages more investment and further increases disparities, hindering competitiveness in the marketplace. In our poorer communities, there is evidence that the public pays dearly for the deterioration of lesser-developed and poorly maintained infrastructure. Higher prices, lost productivity, higher insurance premiums and less-productive human capital perpetuate the comparative economic disadvantages of these communities.

While infrastructure development must be considered with a long-term view, the time horizon for the shorter-term and more-immediate social service needs of members of our communities cannot be overlooked. We must deliver services to our poorer communities as they are needed, but we must also invest in their long-term prosperity and not permit one to crowd out the other.

Research shows that infrastructure development can be overshadowed by the demand for investment of public funds in social service programs. With fierce competition for public funds, the shorter-term needs must not take away from the longer-term investments. We must invest with equity into the future of all our communities.

The high costs of social service needs must never lead to initial under-investment or inconsistent long-term maintenance of a community’s infrastructure. This negates the long-term benefits of the investment and limits access to opportunity by members of that community.

Limited public funds demand tough choices be made by our elected leaders between long- and short-term needs. The key is to strike a balance between the two and not shortchange the future of one for that of the other.•

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Osili, an architect and a Democratic candidate for the City-County Council, ran for Indiana secretary of state in 2010. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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