Recovering Opportunity

Alan Jenkins

This week President Obama promoted his much-needed economic recovery package in a prime-time news conference and a trip to economically depressed Elkhart, Indiana, where the unemployment rate has topped 15%. Cities and towns like Elkhart are bellwethers for where the nation as a whole could be headed without swift and bold governmental action.

As the President said in Elkhart, “That is not only our moral responsibility – to lend a helping hand to our fellow Americans in times of emergency – but it also makes good economic sense. If you don’t have money, you can’t spend it. And if people don’t spend, our economy will continue to decline.”

There’s another bellwether even closer to home for the nation’s first black president. Unemployment among African Americans rose in January to 12.6 percent, nearly double the current, already high rate of unemployment (6.9 percent) for white Americans. African Americans struggled throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s to gain equal access to manufacturing jobs, only to see those jobs evaporate with the advent of globalization. With the weak economy, their inroads into other sectors like education, healthcare, and construction are faltering as well.

What is a daunting economic recession for most of the nation is a crushing Great Depression for many of America’s communities of color. Black male unemployment in New York City, for example, was a staggering 49% before the current recession. The Native American unemployment rate on many reservations is upwards of 80%.

The causes of these racial gaps in economic opportunity are multiple. While traditional, overt bigotry has significantly subsided in recent decades, research shows that non-white job candidates receive less accurate information, fewer call-backs, and fewer job offers than do equally qualified whites. Neighborhoods of color, moreover, are more likely to be segregated away from quality jobs, good schools, fair lending and quality healthcare—all steppingstones to economic opportunity. For Native Americans, a string of broken governmental promises has exacerbated other forms of inequality.

And there is the legacy of past intentional exclusion, which kept people of color out of jobs in construction, law enforcement, and other sectors that have been gateways to middle classed status for other groups. Today, those jobs are often filled through word of mouth, family connections, and other informal systems that continue to exclude people of color.

Just as the plight of Elkhart, Indiana is important to our country as a whole, the racial opportunity gap should be a concern of all Americans. Closing the gap would create millions of new workers and new taxpayers, entrepreneurs and businesses, successful students and healthier communities. It would relieve stressed social services and go a long way toward restoring consumer confidence.

And closing the gap is achievable, starting with the economic recovery package. Between the House and Senate versions of the bill there are crucial elements that combine job creation with infrastructure that improves our schools, hospitals, public transportation, and energy independence. Those should be preserved, and targeted to expand opportunity for all.

“Shovel readiness,” the shorthand for projects that are ready go today, is important given the rapid loss of jobs and consumer spending. But blindly funding the projects that states and municipalities have already teed up could reinforce, or even deepen the inequality of opportunity that already exists in many parts of the country.

Investments should be directed toward those shovel-ready projects that both ensure equal-opportunity employment and have the purpose of connecting neglected communities to quality schools, hospitals, and healthy food stores, as well as green jobs for the new economy.

A first step in that direction is for the House-Senate Conference Committee considering the economic recovery bill to ensure that it explicitly directs the president to coordinate equal opportunity enforcement across the myriad agencies that will be administering recovery funds. These provisions have never been well coordinated, and the last administration largely ignored them entirely. Requiring coordination up front will speed the process of review and enforcement that is required by existing laws, while making clear that equal opportunity provisions cannot be waived or ignored as they have been in the past.

Second, with or without a mandate from Congress, the Administration should act now to ensure that investments will be made with equal opportunity in mind. Whereas the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has historically held this responsibility, the magnitude of recovery spending calls for an inter-agency strategy with attention from key cabinet members. I’ve called before in this column for the adoption of an Opportunity Impact Statement process to ensure both equal and expanded opportunity in government spending, and I continue to view that as one crucial piece of this puzzle.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that investing in “shovel-ready” projects will inevitably be just one part of America’s economic recovery. Great Depression-level unemployment rates existed in many communities of color for years before the current crisis, and expanding opportunity to those communities is key to our nation’s long-term prosperity. Just as the recovery effort is a welcome chance to repair our crumbling infrastructure and invest in energy independence, it can and should be a chance to invest in our shared prosperity. That means complementing shovel-ready projects with some that will take more time, but for which apprenticeships and job retraining can begin immediately.

Despite the historic election of our first African-American president, much work remains to ensure equal opportunity, even as we work to expand economic security for everyone. Pursuing those two goals at once is crucial to being the nation we were meant to be, and to a lasting economic recovery.

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