OGDEN, UT – Most TNH readers, like most Americans as a whole, have probably never heard of Ogden, a city in Utah near Salt Lake City. But they’ve certainly heard of the mounting wealth gap in the United States.
The old saying, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” is not quite accurate. As a whole, all American economic classes, by and large, get “richer” over time. But if some of the classes at the top get richer at a faster rate, then the wealth gap creates difficulties for those at the bottom.
For example, if you get a 20% raise at work this year, you might feel good about that, but if everyone else gets an 80% raise, then your buying power is worse than it was before you got the raise. Eventually, you won’t be able to buy certain items you’d like, because they’ll be out of your price range. That is what is meant by “wealth gap.”
But according to U.S. Census Statistics, Ogden is the American community with the narrowest wealth gap of them all. And for the past eight years, Ogden’s Director of its Economic and Business Development has been Greek-American Tom Christopulos. He spoke with TNH about his beloved hometown’s success.
Both the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek painted glowing pictures of Ogden, fully crediting its status atop the Census statistics. The Atlantic, however, was more measured in its praise, citing the Ogden findings more representative of the entire state of Utah. Quite candidly, Christopulos agrees. “The Atlantic is right in many ways,” he says. “We cannot claim full credit for the narrowing of wealth in Ogden. It is a statewide phenomenon encouraged by the cultures that have gathered here – including a very large body of Greeks, in the 70s the largest population west of the Mississippi – but in Ogden because of us being the intersection of the intercontinental railroads, there are many ethnicities in this area Greeks, Asians, Italians, and too many others to name.”
Nonetheless, even if Ogden is not number one in the nation in terms of a more equal allocation of income, it is certainly in the upper echelon. What was Christopulos’ hand in all of that? “I wanted to try a broader more comprehensive approach to economic development and Ogden gave me the opportunity to do that. We were able to undertake extensive redevelopment projects, business development projects, capital development projects, direct lending projects and new housing projects all of which I thought was an important blending of community and economic development. This was important because it led to $1.5 billion in new construction. The greatest level of development in the City in over 50 years.
“I also had a theory that creating broad-based opportunities at all levels was vital for social mobility. This has grown out of my heritage and how my family came to the country and how important it was to my grandparents in creating opportunities for their children and by extension myself. Both sides of my family came to America in the early 1900s (his father’s side from Pyrgos, his mother’s from Crete). They came to find opportunity which did not exist in Greece at the time. Because they were able to find opportunity, the families grew and prospered. It was not always easy to remember that within 10 years of their arrival they faced the Great Depression. My uncles thought that even during that period investment would yield success and they invested in real estate, stock and their own businesses. Creating wealth for their families that allowed their children to invest their time in socially serving professions. My father was the principal for the Utah School for the Deaf and Blind. His brothers were educators also.”
What Ogden can claim, Christopulos says, “is that we have been one of the primary centers in the United States for opportunity generation. One of the largest per capita job creation centers in the country. One of the largest business start-up centers per capita in the country. Reinvestment in ourselves and others at one of the highest rates in the country. This continues the narrowing of the wealth gap by creating wealth through job development; new job creation in new companies and the eliminating the conditions of poverty– in which Ogden has one of the highest levels in the State.
These things we are proud of. If the narrowing of the wealth gap occurs as a result then great. But that is not the only objective we have. Are primary objective is to magnify the American dream by increasing the access for all people to opportunity regardless of their class or ethnicity.”
Though Christopulos doesn’t speak Greek, he says “I wish I did. Apparently, in my formative years my parents thought I should master one language and not attend Greek school like they did. Too bad for me. It would have been nice to be able to learn about my heritage in its original tongue.” He visited Greece in 2000 and “one of my greatest hopes is to return for an extended stay so that I can learn Greek and more about my family and history. I still have many cousins there. I am very proud of my Greek heritage– as are my three brothers and five sisters. As our my five children. Being Greek means a great deal to them.”
How can Ogden’s model be applied to the United States as a whole, and to Greece for that matter? “The focus on the creation of opportunity is something any city within our country is possible or anywhere in the world for that matter. The how that happens is the more difficult to answer and is varied by the social, and political environment in the area. Sometimes people, especially political people, think that opportunity creation happens at the policy level. And while the policy level can get in the way. It is only people like myself who find ways to adapt limited resources to create opportunities to the broadest level possible to serve the widest range of people possible. This includes a focus at the individual level; but also a focus on the environmental level. Having places where employers can develop their companies has been a cornerstone of our job development success. Governments can help create environments where companies want to be and create work for those people who live in proximity to that work.
“Sometimes I wonder how Greece would be different if they would have found a way to increase the level of opportunities in Greece. Much of the brain drain that comes with such migration patterns could have been avoided.”
Greece should “plow money back into work, creating infrastructures, new technology attraction, enhancement of existing industries; defining and developing industry clusters. Creating an environment of stability to encourage investment. Educational training for new skills for people entering the job market, a requirement to work at all levels. Less social programs and greater focus on job and business development.”