Financing Black Progress Part 1

Financing Black Progress: On a Marshall Plan for the “Abandoned,” Self-Reliance, and “Pooling Our Resources” Through a National Fund

Given the current political environment and budgetary constraints, it is unrealistic to expect anything such as a “Marshall Plan for the Abandoned” — or similar proposals that call for massive public investment to address the urgent problems in our distressed communities — to be implemented. If waiting for the government is futile, we cannot simply throw up our hands, stand helplessly by, and watch yet another generation or more of ‘Abandoned’ black children grow up in ‘permanent underclass’ status, trapped in vicious circles of poverty, despair, and dysfunction. So what are the alternatives? The only other financing option is resource-pooling on a substantial scale in the African American community. Despite decades of exhortations on the “need to pool our resources,” a large-scale nationally galvanizing resource-pooling effort has yet to materialize. Recent developments and trends, however, indicate that the necessary elements are in place to overcome barriers and make this happen. Part 2 outlines how such a national “self-reliance” resource-pooling fund could be created.

Part 1: A Publicly Financed “Marshall Plan” Is Unrealistic, So What’s the Alternative? A “Self-Reliance Marshall Plan”?

As the debate over budget cuts and job creation continues over the next several months, African Americans are obviously concerned about the fate of initiatives that are critical to fostering black progress, especially those that address distressed communities.

In his recent book, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson proposes an ambitious initiative to address the plight of the segment of Black America he dubs the large, ‘Abandoned’ minority. His “Marshall Plan for the Abandoned” (MPA) calls for massive intervention and investment in education, public safety, health, etc., to “arrest the downward spiral.”

Similarly, in its annual report, The State of Black America 2011, the National Urban League (NUL) advocates initiatives that require substantial public investment in job creation, education, housing, and health programs. Leaders of several African American organizations, including NUL, the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the National Policy Alliance, have put pressure on President Obama in recent months to make his administration implement job and wealth creation initiatives that would foster progress in black communities. The embarrassing shoutfest between Cornel West and Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s April 2011 special, A Stronger America: The Black Agenda, symbolized and underscored African Americans’ frustrations and passions on this issue.

Unfortunately, while substantial increases in public investment in proven cost-effective programs would be transformative — and so advocacy on this front should continue — there is no realistic chance that anything on a substantively transformative scale can happen any time soon. Despite previous calls for such investment, African Americans simply have not had and still do not have enough political clout to make it happen. Not even with an African American in the Oval Office, and not even if we were in economic boom times.

Robinson acknowledges that his MPA “will be expensive, and politically it will be a hard sell,” and bemoans that “it seems much easier to convince Americans and their elected officials to spend hundreds of billions of dollars for comprehensive nation-building programs in faraway places like Iraq and Afghanistan than to fund comparable initiatives in their own hometowns…”

He argues that the MPA can be sold politically if it is “framed as a cognate of the original Marshall Plan: a costly, but ultimately profitable, investment in America’s national security. …We can find the money. We just have to find the political will. …We also have to find the political leadership.”

He further argues that, to overcome the difficulty of selling the MPA to the public and to Congress, President Obama has an “important card he can play: means testing of affirmative action programs: He can declare that from now on, the black Mainstream should be on its own–in exchange for the political leeway to concentrate money and attention on the Abandoned.”

Robinson wrote these words months before the November 2010 election, the subsequent contentious debates over budget cuts and the debt ceiling, and the resulting political wreckage the president now has to contend with in the election season. It is doubtful Robinson would today still make the argument that his proposed selling strategy remains realistic, if it ever was: the noxious and racially-charged political environment, the continued contentiousness of the budget debate, the political damage the president has suffered, and the difficult reelection prospects he faces have essentially erased any chance of substantial increases in investments in even the most desirable and worthwhile initiatives.

Look no further than education reform, and, in particular, funding for early childhood education programs. There is a consensus among politicians, education experts, and business leaders across the political and ideological spectrums that massive public investment in early childhood education is critical to ensuring the country’s economic progress and security. Yet, funding for these programs, which should be increased, is slated for severe cuts.

The president’s American Jobs Act, which, presumably, the administration believes is politically feasible in the current environment, is quite modest and falls severely short of what would be required to foster significant progress in distressed communities. Even so, it is becoming evidently clear that the parts of the Act that are most critical to job creation in poor communities will not be approved by the current Congress. Furthermore, even if the president wins reelection, he is unlikely to have a Congress that would be willing to pass any kind of legislation that will come anywhere close to having a significant impact relative to the enormity of the crisis in distressed communities.

Clearly, waiting for the government is futile. So what is the alternative?

Obviously, we cannot simply throw up our hands, stand helplessly by, and watch yet another generation or more of ‘Abandoned’ black children grow up in “permanent underclass” status, trapped in vicious circles of poverty, despair, and dysfunction. While there are many organizations and individuals who are working selflessly and tirelessly to address the crisis, substantial resources are desperately needed to bring about the desired transformative impacts in distressed communities, which require increased investments in job creation and other initiatives such as early childhood education, parental education, after-school programs, remedial education, mentoring, job training, etc.

If such public investment is not likely anytime soon, the only realistic alternative is to develop more innovative strategies and effective initiatives through a coherent, proactive and collective “we-have-to-help-ourselves” approach on a large scale. An obvious mechanism for doing this is a national resource-pooling fund to finance initiatives that effectively address urgent and critically important economic, educational, and social problems in black communities.

“We need to pool our resources” has been a recurring exhortation in the African American community for decades. For example, here’s Dr. Martin Luther King in a 1958 interview:

Question: Do you think Negroes are partly responsible for their plight? They don’t stick together and they don’t help each other. Negroes, for example, will walk past a Negro- owned grocery store or shoe shop to get to a white place. Instead of trying to make themselves financially independent, most Negroes are trying to keep up with the Joneses. Isn’t it time for us to stop begging and stand on our own feet?

Dr. King: I quite agree that there is a great deal that the Negro can do to lift himself by his own bootstraps. Well has it been said by one that Negroes too often buy what they want and beg for what they need. Negroes must learn to practice systematic saving. They must also pool their economic resources through various cooperative enterprises. Such agencies as credit unions, savings and loan associations, and finance companies are needed in every Negro community. All of these are things that would serve to lift the economic level of the Negro which would in turn give him greater purchasing power. This increased purchasing power will inevitably make for better housing, better health standards, and for better educational standards.
[From: “Advice for Living,” The King Papers Project, The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University:]

For various reasons, despite decades of exhortations on the “need to pool our resources,” a large-scale nationwide resource-pooling effort has yet to materialize.

Part 2 discusses these reasons, recent developments and trends that indicate such resource-pooling is feasible, and how a national resource-pooling fund could be created.

The views expressed in this article, a contribution by our special correspondent, are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of or its affiliates and associates.