Why we can't compromise on consumer protection

Today, President Obama meets with Republican and Democratic leaders from both chambers of Congress to discuss the financial regulatory reform bill, which is near a vote in the Senate. The Financial Regulatory Reform bill, as supported by the Obama administration, is considered the most sweeping financial regulatory reform since the Great Depression. The bill includes a strong consumer protection agency that would establish and enforce the regulation of practices used by the nation’s lenders, creditors, and other financial institutions.

While many lawmakers, including Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D-Conn), agree that a lack of consumer protection spawned our current fiscal crisis, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) has promised to fight the bill, which he considers to be an institutionalization of “taxpayer bailouts.” Republican leaders are now looking for a compromise; however, partisan politics aside, what’s really at stake is a mechanism to hold institutions accountable to standards that prevent consumer financial exploitation, which ultimately helps everyone to recover from the fiscal crisis.

Without a doubt, a consumer financial protection agency could be enormously helpful to American households as they struggle to rebound from the impact of the recession. But for African-Americans, the picture is more complicated, and deserving of a multi-pronged approach. African-Americans and other people of color have lost more than $200 billion in wealth and assets from the loss of home ownership and the economic deterioration of communities deeply affected by high rates of foreclosures, default, and abandonment. In fact, this latest fiscal debacle has left families of color, unlike the majority of their white counterparts, with debt that has increased faster than income, causing many to turn to harmful payday and title loans to make it through these difficult times.

Let’s be clear: no one can own a home, build credit, or participate in any other wealth-building strategy if they don’t have a job. Our failure to meet the charge of full employment has had a disproportionately negative impact on African-Americans. The relatively large percentage of African-Americans who have been harmed by long-term unemployment—including those 1 in 5 black men who are facing unemployment during this recession, and the 15 percent of unemployed black women who are heads of households—have not been able to fully engage in the American democracy to the extent that it allows them to financially prosper. Any consumer protection strategy must go hand-in-hand with job creation.

In addition, we must also invest in health insurance subsidies and unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for more than six months, a disproportionately high percentage of which are African-American. While we must continue with our advocacy for the implementation of transparent employment processes that will increase the number of jobs that are visible, available, and accessible to the public, we must also join mobilization efforts to ensure that the private sector is also creating new jobs and retaining old ones so that we can improve our participation in the labor force.

The fiscal strain many of us now feel is a result of unemployment and the dysfunctional lending and borrowing cycles that fueled and were fueled by discriminatory policies and unregulated practices combined. Just as no one factor contributed to our economic crisis, no one strategy will solve all of our problems. The complete response to ensure that African-Americans are intentionally included in the nation’s efforts to rebound from this recession will need to include an elevation of an equity agenda associated with advocacy efforts toward full employment, credit repair, entrepreneurship, creative savings plans, and community economic development. We must simultaneously elevate our commitment to quality education, mental and physical health care, and civic engagement to facilitate a full recovery.

As Martin Luther King said in 1963: “We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” In any economic condition, justice plays an important role. Let’s not forget it.