It’s past time to fight for black economic progress

It’s past time to fight for black economic progress
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With all eyes on Election Day 2018, it would be easy to get swept up in the maelstrom currently dominating our politics. But as we focus on the scoreboard, we also need a plan to address the root problems facing families — especially black families — in America today. Unless we start getting serious about creating policies that advance economic opportunity for black Americans, the downward spiral we’ve witnessed in work, wages and wealth will only continue for the foreseeable future.

The numbers are compelling. Despite the recent rhetoric about black economic conditions being at historic highs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that third-quarter median weekly earnings for black Americans was just $686 compared to their white, full-time counterparts who were paid $915. This systemic undervaluing of black workers is only the latest data point in a wide array of statistics that show black communities across the country are struggling to access the kinds of opportunities they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.

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It’s no wonder that a poll released by the Black Economic Alliance this month shows 62 percent of African-American voters believe economic conditions for their community are poor and nearly half say things are getting worse. Our survey of registered voters in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, and Tennessee found that more than half of African-American voters — 56 percent — are following news and information about politics very closely this midterm election. The stakes are too high, and the statistics are too jarring, for black economic progress to not be a part of the dialogue leading up to the 2018 midterms and beyond.

Institutionalized inequities have hamstrung black communities for centuries — and we’re still seeing the downstream effects of the policies that created these inequities in the first place. Black Americans haven’t had the ability to access either high-paying jobs or the means of developing long-lasting wealth. Only 6.8 percent of tech jobs — the jobs that are fueling the 21st century economy — are filled by black Americans. The wage gap has increased from 20 percent to 30 percent in the past 30 years.

Homeownership among black families, one of the key means by which families create and maintain wealth, has remained stagnant for the past 50 years. The average black family holds less than 10 percent of the wealth of the average white family. Without  these key ingredients, black Americans won’t be able to play their part in the economy — and the economy as a whole will suffer as a result. Meanwhile, addressing these issues would reap broad benefits, because when black Americans thrive, America thrives.

The only way to turn things around is for our elected leaders to commit to proactive policy measures designed to address the problems facing the black community. And the best way to achieve those commitments is by demanding that the candidates seeking higher office in our states, and on Capitol Hill, make black economic progress part of the public discussion. That’s what the Black Economic Alliance set out to do this election season by supporting several federal and statewide candidates — and what we will continue to do in 2019 and 2020 as we work with our champions to reshape the many policies that should be informed by the needs of black Americans nationwide.

We can start by rethinking our nation’s education and workforce development programs. In the 21st century, every single school in America needs to prepare its students for work in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields — not just schools in high-income communities — starting from an early age. States need to invest in the development of their workforces by supporting vocational schools and apprenticeship programs that give students, black and white, the opportunity to develop skills in a hands-on setting. We can’t let student loans continue to be as onerous of a burden to black families as they currently are.

Education reform is a key starting point for tackling the obstacles that have held black Americans back, but it’s not enough. Black families need access to the tools that help build long-lasting wealth, whether that is owning homes, starting businesses, or holding high-paying jobs. Down-payment assistance programs and support for fair-housing regulations ensure that black families can start to build wealth through homeownership.

Increased funding for government programs that support black- and minority-owned businesses, whether through direct contracting or incubation, will help translate these entrepreneurs’ dreams into reality while promoting overall economic growth. Infrastructure projects that connect black communities to centers of economic activity and affordable housing units near commercial areas will ensure that no American can be zoned out of economic opportunity.

And supporting black economic progress isn’t just good policy; it’s good politics, too. Black voters are more eager to vote in this election cycle than we’ve seen in recent memory, with fully 62 percent of black Americans believing that it is more important for them to vote in this cycle than last. And those voters are particularly interested in candidates who will champion an economic agenda focused on their communities. With black Americans living in swing districts and states in large proportions, the black vote is likely to determine outcomes in the House of Representatives and in key gubernatorial races across the country.

At the end of the day, the laws that our representatives put on the books matter. They translate into real-life impacts for families across the country. America needs legislators who understand how to craft policies that promote opportunity for black communities, so we can create true economic progress for all Americans.

Akunna Cook is an attorney and the executive director of the Black Economic Alliance, a nonpartisan group dedicated to advancing a black economic agenda in Congress and the states. Before practicing law, she served for almost 10 years as a career diplomat with the Department of State.