Jan. 9, 2007 – After tipping the power balance on Capitol Hill, Democrats promise to reorient congressional priorities, but critics say that for all the talk of change, issues of race and income inequality are glaringly absent from the Democratsâ€™ initial agenda.
During their first 100 hours of leadership in the House of Representatives, Democrats say they are focusing on key domestic issues from last yearâ€™s electoral campaigns: Medicare, the minimum wage, college education and energy policy.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Dâ€“California) announced last November that the new agenda would promote "prosperity, opportunity and security for all Americans."
But United for a Fair Economy (UFE), a group campaigning to reduce income inequality, questions whether that pledge rings equally true for communities on different sides of the so-called "racial economic divide."
In a report released today, UFE argues that although the new majority rode into office with heavy support from black and Latino voters, disproportionately poor communities of color will continue to be left behind under the new regime.
The Democratsâ€™ most concrete anti-poverty proposal is to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour by 2009 â€“ the first federal increase in nearly a decade. In a statement issued after the election, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Dâ€“Maryland) hailed the initiative as "an issue of economic fairness and justice."
A new report scrutinizes the Democrats' agenda and finds little promise for closing the racial-economic divide.
But, echoing the warnings of advocates for low-income communities, UFE points out that many blacks and Latinos will remain mired in poverty without more proactive approaches to broadening economic opportunity.
"There are larger structural issues in our economy that are not being addressed by this agenda," Meizhu Lui, executive director of UFE, told The NewStandard. "Lifting people out of poverty and closing the racial-economic gap will require far bolder and more-innovative thinking."
About one in four blacks and one in five Latinos lives in poverty, according to census data using conservative federal standards, compared to one in twelve whites.
Workers making less than $7.25 an hour are disproportionately black and Latino, so those groups would especially benefit from the wage hike. However, among the urban poor, $7.25 an hour will not sustain a typical familyâ€™s basic needs, particularly in urban areas where poor people of color are concentrated, according to data compiled by the progressive think tank Economic Policy Institute.
To give more economic leverage to people of color beyond the minimum wage, the UFE report recommended that Congress pass the Employee Free Choice Act, a proposal introduced in the last Congress to strengthen labor-organizing rights and ease the process for establishing unions. Union membership, which has dwindled nationwide, correlates with higher wages for workers of all backgrounds, but especially for people of color.
Advocates also point out that while millions of workers will gain from the minimum-wage increase, many others are struggling just to gain footing in the workforce.
Advocates also point out that while millions of workers will gain from the wage increase, many others are struggling just to gain footing in the workforce. Blacks and Latinos face unemployment rates of 9 and 5 percent respectively, compared to 4 percent of whites. The UFE report called on Congress to connect communities of color with stable jobs through affirmative action and more-targeted economic supports.
The Democratsâ€™ agenda does make some overtures toward expanding educational opportunities, mainly through reducing the interest rate on college loans. But critics say that focusing on youth with the option of obtaining higher education does little to reduce deeper barriers facing black and Latino students â€“ low family financial assets, failing public schools, and climbing tuition costs.
According to 2004 federal data, enrollment in post-high-school education among 18- to 24-year-olds varies from about 42 percent of whites to just 32 percent of blacks and 25 percent of Latinos. Meanwhile, the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds who have not completed a high-school education has remained significantly higher for blacks and Latinos compared to their white counterparts since the 1970s.
"There are major education issues that determine whether or not people of color get to go to college that need to be dealt with," said Rinku Sen, executive director of the national progressive think tank Applied Research Center. To boost the prospects of disadvantaged students, she suggested that Congress start with basic education. For instance, she told TNS, lawmakers should investigate how "accountability" standards and financing under the No Child Left Behind Act are affecting school systems in communities of color.
Critics say grassroots groups should mobilize to force Democrats to respond to the needs of people of color.
UFE also argues the cost of closing the so-called "achievement gap" should not fall on students in the form of crippling debt. Noting that black families have only about 15 percent of the median wealth of white households â€“ and black students are more likely to take on debt and less likely to graduate from college than white students â€“ the authors of the UFE report wrote that as long as college aid continues to center on loans, poor black and Latino students will find it "financially dangerous to stay in school."
As with education, the report also criticizes the 100-hour agendaâ€™s healthcare initiatives as too little, too late for people of color.
To help bring down medical costs for seniors, the Democrats want to enable the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices with the pharmaceutical industry. But the reportâ€™s authors say that since low-income beneficiaries, who are disproportionately black and Latino, could technically qualify for government drug subsidies, the new savings will tend to benefit white seniors paying out of pocket.
Community organizations and anti-poverty groups say that ultimately, lawmakers must confront racial health disparities from birth, not just in old age. Due to differences in mortality and population-growth factors, blacks and Latinos tend to be younger than whites and presently constitute a relatively small portion of the Medicare population. As gaps in health-insurance coverage hit people of color especially hard, national grassroots groups like Jobs with Justice and ACORN are urging Congress to move toward universal health care for all ages.
Critics of the 100-hour agenda acknowledge that the Democrats may be seeking to demonstrate their cohesion by grabbing quick, but less-ambitious legislative victories during their first few days in power.
But Sen warned that progressives cannot afford to let the new majority sit on their laurels, and that grassroots groups should mobilize to force Democrats to respond to the needs of people of color. In the 1990s, she added, liberal advocacy groups avoided openly criticizing the Clinton administration, and the result was a sweeping welfare overhaul that dismantled public benefits.
"My general feeling about this new Congress is: no grace period," she said.
John Powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at Ohio State University, said that the 100-hour agenda centers on broad, "colorblind" policies that are politically safer than confronting the overlap of race and class.
"The wisdom of the modern Democrats is, â€˜You donâ€™t talk race,â€™" Powell told TNS. "And if youâ€™re forced to actually deal with those issues at all, you deal with it through a universal class lens."
Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, said that while such an approach may have political appeal, it ignores institutional problems affecting people of color, such as discriminatory housing policies that concentrate blacks and Latinos in impoverished neighborhoods. "You canâ€™t look at poverty without also looking at issues of racial fairness," he said, "because poverty is not race-neutral."
Esmeralda Simmons, executive director of the New York-based legal advocacy organization Center for Law and Social Justice, said the House Democratsâ€™ plans for their first days in power reveal that the last election could not overcome business as usual in Washington. "There is more interest in maintaining white, middle-class and upper-class Americans voting in their favor," she said, "than there is in addressing major issues that move to the heart of the historical inequity in this nation."