Yesterday, Angela Glover Blackwell testified before Congress about how to increase economic opportunity for African Americans. She’s the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a think tank focusing on advancing economic and social equality for low income people and people of color through public policy. I wanted to take a minute to share her thought-provoking ideas with you.
She brought up several important points about the changing nature of our country. We're becoming a country of color: today the United States may be 63% white, but by 2043 we will be majority-minority. California is already there.
Despite the changing face of America, we're not moving forward fast enough in bringing equal opportunities to all. As Ms. Blackwell put it, "African Americans go to the worst schools, face the highest rates of joblessness, are concentrated in the lowest-wage jobs, and have the fewest opportunities to move up and enter the middle class. Many historic African American neighborhoods have suffered from decades of disinvestment, and redevelopment efforts too often fail to address the needs of existing residents while making the neighborhood more attractive for newcomers."
What can we do about it? Blackwell called for government officials in Washington to focus on three things: jobs for low income African Americans, sustainable community-based programs, and changing policy so that what builds wealth (home ownership, income, education and inheritance) is more open to all.
We need more jobs, and she points out that publicly-funded construction jobs can be used to help bring employment opportunities to targeted communities. Raising the minimum wage can make the jobs we have, livable for a family. Local programs designed for a particular community can be very effective, especially when they offer integrated services rather than looking at only one piece of the puzzle. Finally, many of the credits in our tax system today help the haves rather than the have-nots. To fix this problem Blackwell suggests converting the home mortgage deduction to a tax credit, so that households can benefit even if they don't itemize expenses, expanding the American Opportunity Tax Credit to reach more low-income students, and allowing holders of older student debt to refinance their student loans at the same interest rate set in 2010 for federal student loans.
HOPE CEO Bill Bynum spoke yesterday as well, about how to close the wealth gap for African Americans. Many African Americans live in bank deserts -- communities with two or fewer branches. Access to banking services for cashing checks, getting a mortgage or a small business loan are critical for building wealth. Not having the ability to buy a house or start a business, bleeding off much of your paychecks to check cashing services means that the wealth gap will only widen over time.
Bynum suggested federal investments in persistent poverty areas, strengthening the Community Reinvestment Act to support community development institutions that will bring banking services to bank deserts, and federal regulations that protect individuals from getting caught in predatory loans they will never be able to repay.