Economic recovery is leaving too many behind

Nearly seven years after the end of the Great Recession, the economy is starting to recover but it is bypassing far too many communities.

In some neighborhoods, nearly one-quarter of adults are high-school dropouts, more than half of adults aren't working and more than a quarter of the people live in poverty.

The gap between the richest and poorest is wider than ever, and the recession left many of the poor worse off than before.

Homeless man on the streets
Jason Doly | Getty Images
Homeless man on the streets

The unemployment rate overall has been cut in half since its peak during the recession but it's still nearly twice as high for African-Americans. It also obscures the fact that many of the employed are struggling: working two or even three jobs and still forced to rely on public assistance to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.

The failure of wages to keep pace with economic growth has, at last, driven a stake through the heart of the stale cliché, "a rising tide lifts all boats." Without immediate, targeted policies to address inequality, the rising tide threatens to drown our most vulnerable.

Meanwhile, these same vulnerable populations are watching the single most important tool for affecting positive social change whittled away by discriminatory voter suppression laws.

The National Urban League, in partnership with other civil rights and economic justice advocates, has developed a public policy agenda targeting the primary challenges facing African-Americans, urban communities and all low-income and working-class Americans. This agenda addresses five main goals:

  • Economic parity for people of color
  • Equity in educational opportunity
  • Protection and defense of voting rights
  • Elimination of health-care disparities
  • Comprehensive criminal-justice reform

While economic growth alone won't reduce income inequality, it does mean an elevated standard of living and a fertile environment for progressive economic policies to take root.

We need polices that not only stimulate economic growth but also create family-sustaining jobs include a heavy investment in infrastructure (targeted to distressed communities) that includes job training and placement for workers in these communities; development of a "Buy American" initiative promoting and incentivizing the purchase of American-manufactured goods; expansion of small-business lending; and an increase in the federal minimum wage.

It's no coincidence that the decline of economic opportunity in urban and distressed communities has coincided with the erosion of voting rights in those same communities. To our dismay, we have seen cutbacks in early voting, discriminatory identification requirements, unnecessarily onerous registration procedures and purges of the voting rolls. Elected leaders have no incentive to pursue economic justice if the very people harmed by regressive policies can't vote.

The urgency to close the economic gap is not only a reflection of the desperation of the poor; inequality contributes to instability of the economy as a whole. Good jobs mean healthy, stable communities and the fulfillment of our commitment to a more perfect union.

Commentary by Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter @MarcMorial.

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