White House: Economy is improving for African-Americans, but more work is needed

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The U.S. economy is improving, and African-Americans have made inroads since the Great Recession, but there is more work to be done in pursuing racial equality.

That was the message from key cabinet members on the progress of the economy and its impact on African-Americans.

In a press call sponsored by the White House last week, top administration officials made the best case for President Obama’s efforts.

“When the president came into office, the United States was in the midst of the worst, most devastating recession since the Great Depression, and the overall unemployment rate rose to 10 percent. The African-American community bore the brunt of that recession, seeing its unemployment rate rise to a high of 16.8 percent in March 2010,” said Jason Furman, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

According to Furman, the auto industry rescue, the Recovery Act and housing and infrastructure policies helped turn the economy around. And while the black unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent in December, that number remains too high.

“There is more we need to do to create jobs, to create better jobs and to raise wages, building on what we’ve already done,” he added, noting that the president has called for Congress to raise the minimum wage. Increasing the bottom limit of the pay scale to $12/hour by 2020 would lead to a raise for 45 percent of working African-American mothers, Furman said. Further, the White House wants to further expand the Earned Income Tax Credit — the child tax credit — which provides an average tax cut of $1,000 for 2 million Black families.

There is a role that transportation can play in reducing economic inequality, a point which U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx emphasized.

“We recognize and I don’t think any administration in history has recognized that transportation can and should do more than just connect folks from point A to Point B as much as this administration has. And we not only believe that, we also believe that it also involves not just getting people from their doorstep to work or to school, but that transportation can play a role in bringing those opportunities to the doorstep of so many Americans,” Foxx said.

“At its best transportation infrastructure can revitalize communities, create pathways to work and connect hardworking Americans to a better quality of life,” he added.

According to the DOT chief, his department has focused on the role of transit in revitalizing economically distressed communities and boosting local development; made investments to improve the Detroit bus system; fixed 21 bridges in rural Mississippi; and built light rail infrastructure in Crenshaw.

In addition, the president signed the first long-term transportation bill in a decade, “a down payment on the twenty-first century transportation system.” Foxx added that while segments of the population such as African-Americans and women traditionally have not benefited from transportation projects, DOT has incorporated an emphasis on opportunity and inclusion into its work through the new position of a chief opportunities officer.

Making housing more affordable and accessible is another goal of the White House. “For many African-Americans, economic security begins with housing, because as folks know, where a family lives often determines how they live, the wealth that they build, the jobs they get and the education their children receive,” said U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.  “We know that when the African-American community succeeds, our entire nation succeeds, and that we all have a vested interest in shaping a future where opportunity is available to everyone in our nation.”

Secretary Castro said that in recent years, HUD has insured loans to half of black home buyers and has created thousands of affordable rental units each year, leaving families with more money for paying bills, retirement or starting a business. And Castro noted that HUD has partnered with Google Fiber to install high-speed internet in public housing, eliminating the need for people to go to McDonald’s or the library to do homework or apply for a job.

When it comes to supporting entrepreneurship, the Obama Administration has made business loans more accessible to underserved communities, said Small Business Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet. According to Contreras-Sweet, the SBA has recruited more credit unions and community banks as SBA lenders, streamlined the application process through technology, and instituted a new system to reduce racial and gender discrimination in the loan application process.

“In addition, a program that we’ve launched to help attract more millennial entrepreneurs, as a part of our My Brother’s Keeper initiative, is helping to mentor more young entrepreneurs of color,” Contreras-Sweet said, adding that SBA also has reached out to formerly incarcerated individuals. “So many of our previously incarcerated who have paid their debt to society can’t get loans. So we decided to ban the box, join that movement and say, ‘If you paid your debt to society, we don’t need to know about your past, and we want to help you get a micro loan to be able to start your business.’“

Last year, according to Contreras-Sweet, SBA lending to African-American-owned businesses increased 35 percent.

Meanwhile, even as Obama cabinet officials tout their successes in promoting racial equality, their efforts are part of an ongoing process. Institutional racism plays a persistent role in compromising the aspirations and progress of people of color through job discrimination, mortgage lending bias and other areas of daily life, and no one can expect one administration to suddenly wipe the slate of racism clean. Further, the black unemployment rate has been double the white rate for over four decades. And the U.S. Department of Justice and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have fought against discriminatory lending, a most recent example being the $21.9 million settlement by Toyota Motor Credit Corp. over allegations of charging black and Asian borrowers higher interest auto loans than whites.

TheGrio.com asked the cabinet members to assess the ongoing challenges posed by discriminatory practices and efforts to combat them.

HUD Secretary Castro told theGrio that each year, through the Fair Housing Act, the administration cracks down on discrimination by landlords and banks in the real estate and housing markets. Further, through a new fair housing rule, communities that accept HUD money are told they must do everything in their power to ensure greater equality in housing and check residential segregation. And SBA administrator Contreras-Sweet added that SBA tracks the ethnicity of every lending partner for problems and has the power to grant and to rescind preferred lending status for lenders.

The debriefing underscored the particular needs of African-Americans in overcoming economic inequality and the ways in which the occupant of the White House can play a pivotal role in addressing institutional racism.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove