This Congress must expand economic opportunity for black Americans

This Congress must expand economic opportunity for black Americans
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Although the Trump administration has been fixated on its quest to build a wall along the southern U.S. border, members of the 116th Congress — the most diverse in our nation’s history — have the opportunity to do what the American people put them into office to do. A great place to start would be helping to promote economic progress in black communities.

On Nov. 6, 2018, the American people delivered a clear message to this new Congress: It’s time to level the playing field so every American has a fair chance to succeed. Freshmen Reps. Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathGOP Georgia congressional candidate withdraws after calling himself a 'white nationalist' House Democrats request sit-down with McConnell to talk guns Assault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress MORE (D-Ga.), Lizzie Fletcher (D-Texas), Antonio DelgadoAntonio Ramon DelgadoAssault weapons ban picks up steam in Congress The 11 House Dems from Trump districts who support assault weapons ban House Dems, Senate GOP build money edge to protect majorities MORE (D-N.Y.), Debbie Mucarsel-PowellDebbie Mucarsel-PowellThe House Democrats who voted to kill impeachment effort House votes to kill impeachment effort against Trump Democratic lawmaker pushes back on Castro's call to repeal law making illegal border crossings a crime MORE (D-Fla.), and Colin Allred (D-Texas) are in especially strong positions to make an immediate impact, given their assignments to congressional committees on education, infrastructure, technology and small business. They can advocate for infrastructure spending, broadband in rural communities, workforce development and job training programs, and expanded access to financing for small businesses.

The implications could be far-reaching for black Americans in particular.

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Take workforce development, for example. Black communities across the country long have been disadvantaged by a lack of technical education and vocational training programs in schools. Schools need to prepare everyone for the 21st century economy and jobs. That means STEAM education in every school. That means apprenticeship programs that give students hands-on learning experiences so they can compete for the millions of unfilled jobs in the U.S. today.

That also means ensuring that college is more affordable so black students can graduate without crippling debt, giving them access to wealth-building opportunities such as homeownership and entrepreneurship. We’re counting on you all to make progress in these areas.

But education isn’t enough. America also needs significant investments in infrastructure that will help black communities access new-economy jobs. Far too many black Americans know all too well that it doesn’t matter how skilled or trained you are if you can’t physically get to your job. We need to ensure affordable housing that is close to centers of economic activity — and we need to invest in public transportation that connects existing communities to these centers to truly democratize economic opportunity.

We’ve seen these policies work in big cities with large black populations — in fact, experts note a strong correlation between low unemployment and high public transit usage rates. We simply must do more.

The need for these vital reforms has increased as a result of the most recent federal government shutdown. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the 35-day shutdown cost the United States economy $11 billion — $3 billion of which never will be recovered. Should President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE choose to shut down the government again, those costs will only continue to increase. Neither the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and contractors across the country, who spent five weeks wondering when their next paycheck would come, nor the U.S. economy can afford a repeat shutdown.

Our representatives have a historic chance help black families across the country contribute to and benefit from the economy. We need all of you to focus on kitchen-table issues — and to aim high. Voters turned out in record numbers for the 2018 midterms to support candidates who would focus on issues, not on Donald Trump. Black voters are concerned about health care, jobs, and other policy areas that lawmakers have wide-ranging powers to shape for the future. That’s all the motivation members of Congress should need to keep their eyes on the prize.

Finally, we hope you remember that passing legislation isn’t the only important thing that Congress can do. Every monumental legislative effort in this country — including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — started with debate in committee rooms that, at the time, may have seemed to be going nowhere. But through the dedicated advocacy of passionate representatives, over time those debates turned into bills and those bills became laws.

It’s up to this new Congress to focus on black economic empowerment. If that happens, it’s not hard to imagine the progress Congress can  make for this generation of black Americans — and for generations to come.

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.