ArcNews Online

Summer 2010
[an error occurred while processing this directive]

E-mail to a Friend

Reforming Economic Development and Fighting Sprawl with Effective Maps


  • With GIS, Good Jobs First has produced many sophisticated studies.
  • Nonprofit uses GIS to strengthen its argument that states should rewrite their economic development program rules.
  • ArcGIS was used to create a regional impact study of workers dislocated in a plant closing.

Jobs are a red-hot topic these days; public officials are under terrific pressure to create and retain them. As a result, tax breaks and other economic development incentives to stimulate the economy are getting a lot of attention. Unfortunately, such programs are poorly understood and often given loaded labels such as "corporate welfare." Companies threatening to leave are committing "job blackmail," and those that stage multistate competitions are exploiting "the economic war among the states."

A more descriptive term is job subsidies. But whatever their name, reforming incentives is no small task: the average U.S. state has three dozen programs on the books, costing states and cities an estimated $60 billion a year. They range from straightforward training grants to arcane programs like tax increment financing, enterprise zones, and film production tax credits.

  map of plant closings and major layoffs in Detroit Michigan
Detroit metro area plant closings and major layoffs, 20012004.

Enter Good Jobs First, an activist nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that helps grassroots groups and public officials cut through the jargon. Founded in 1998 by Greg LeRoy, it provides research, Web tools, training, and consulting with a staff of eight (including two in New York City, New York). LeRoy had worked on the issue since the late 1970s at two other nonprofits in Chicago, Illinois.

As the executive director of a group for the first time, LeRoy was challenged: how to make the issue crisp and compelling. A fan of Edward Tufte—professor emeritus of political science, statistics, and computer science at Yale University—and a student of how research is presented graphically, LeRoy's first hire was a GIS-trained planning school graduate. Their first study was about wages: Minnesota had passed a landmark reform requiring companies to disclose the pay levels of workers hired in incentive deals.

They stumbled on Anoka, a far-north suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which had filled up an industrial park with 29 companies pirated from Minneapolis and older inner-ring suburbs. LeRoy realized he had struck a data gold mine: subsidized job relocations that could be mapped for a sprawl analysis. Good Jobs First received a copy of ArcView (courtesy of Ralph Nader in 1999) and a study grant from the Joyce Foundation and issued Another Way Sprawl Happens in early 2000.

The findings were disturbing and received prominent media coverage: the net effect of the relocations was to move jobs away from poverty, people of color, and transit access. It was the first time company-specific incentive deals had been mapped and analyzed for their land-use impact.

Good Jobs First has since produced a string of increasingly sophisticated studies, using Esri products in-house or with partners. The largest is The Geography of Incentives: Economic Development and Land Use in Michigan. Funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, it maps 4,000 deals in seven metro areas and sorts the deals through the lens of Myron Orfield's community typology and other criteria. In a state hard hit by the decline of manufacturing, the most damaging images involve job loss as well as creation: it is the first time incentives have been geographically juxtaposed against plant closings and mass layoffs (as officially notified under the federal WARN Act). For the state's most generous subsidy, the maps of the largest metro areas like Detroit, Michigan, show very few deals going to the central city or the densest inner-ring suburbs, even though those areas have suffered the vast majority of shutdowns. For some, the images conjure up redlining, the practice of geographic discrimination that banks and insurance companies have been accused of.

Good Jobs First has produced several more such studies, all funded by the Ford Foundation. "Reverse Robin Hood" was the banner business-section headline of the Chicago Tribune reporting on 15 years of State of Illinois investments in the six-county Chicago metro area. The Good Jobs First maps revealed that one in six company-specific subsidies went to a small slice—the Northwest (O'Hare) Corridor—an enormously attractive place with the nation's second-busiest airport and several feeder freeways, the engine of the region's wealthiest quadrant. By contrast, large swaths of Chicago's South Side and its low-income and predominantly African-American southern and western suburbs got few deals or none. At a Chicago Urban League forum, the state's commerce secretary was publicly chastised.

Another study revisited the Twin Cities (The Thin Cities) where state legislators had responded to the Anoka study by adding a disclosure-form question: Did this deal involve a move, and if so, from where? Eighty-six times, the study revealed, companies had received subsidies simply to move around within the metro area, and the moves were overwhelmingly outbound: 22 were more than 10 miles outbound. The relocations were analyzed by race, poverty, welfare, and tax base wealth—and for their impact on workers who cannot afford a car: 60 of the 86 moves made jobs inaccessible via public transit (including 26 that had been accessible). The bottom line: longer commutes and more air pollution; a depleted tax base for places already poorest; and more low-income and workers of color spatially trapped, unable to compete for new jobs.

Two of the most recent studies were done in-house with ArcGIS. Sprawling ' found similar inequities in the Buffalo-Niagara metro area of New York. And another study of relocations—covering Cleveland and Cincinnati, Ohio—shows companies moving away from older areas to get lucrative enterprise zone tax breaks.

The policy punch line of the sprawl studies is simple: states (which legally enable and regulate incentives) have two "policy silos" that are utterly disconnected and often at war: economic development versus planning for transportation and land use. Therefore, Good Jobs First argues, states should rewrite their economic development program rules to make them subordinate to planning goals. Incentives are tools and nothing more, and they can be reformed to reduce sprawl and promote regional equity, but only if a state is intentional about it.

Good Jobs First has also created startling unpublished maps for labor leaders. In Chicago and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it mapped the geography of unionization and found that across the board, as jobs thin out, they deunionize. As a Chicago Federation of Labor officer reacted, "Now, sprawl looks like a giant antiunion conspiracy." After Good Jobs First publicized the findings within labor, the national AFL-CIO passed a convention resolution condemning sprawl and urging its affiliates to weigh in for smart growth.

The smart growth movement has historically paid too little attention to jobs, Good Jobs First argues. Indeed, the original 10 principles of smart growth do not contain the word job or workplace. By using maps to dramatize how incentives fuel sprawl and how sprawl hurts union members, Good Jobs First has brought a new public policy hook and a new constituency to the cause.

Good Jobs New York, Good Jobs First's New York City project, has produced Subsidy Snapshots, or brochures with community maps showing company names and incentive deal details. In both Manhattan and Queens, New York, the snapshots were co-released with the borough president; they are being used by job training providers who seek to place trainees at companies that are committed to job creation. Good Jobs First most recently used ArcGIS in a regional impact study of workers dislocated in an Indiana plant closing.

These pioneering mapping studies have enabled Good Jobs First to reach large, new audiences; firmly connect incentives to sprawl and all its attendant injustices; and inspire some public officials to start rewriting the rules. No bar chart or correlation graph could have carried the messages so powerfully as maps.

More Information

For more information, contact Greg LeRoy, Good Jobs First (e-mail:; tel.: 202-232-1616, ext. 211; Web:

Contact Us | Privacy | Legal | Site Map