Uncategorized · June 24, 2024 1

Are You Ready to Right A Wrong?

Marty Levine

June 20, 2024

In the past decade, I have written many words about our nation’s economic inequality and its pernicious impact on those who find themselves without the financial resources to provide a reasonable standard of living and meet the often-high costs of life’s unexpected challenges.  I’ve also tried to spotlight the political and social power that wealth buys allowing the wealthy to further tilt the scales in their favor.

You might be asking why there has been so little political support for the difficult steps needed to right this wrong. Is it just that it requires rich people to share some of their wealth?

A new study released just days ago about the wealth gaps in the Chicago metropolitan area may tell us why. Racism seems to be the force that prevents forming coalitions and achieving the changes we need.

The recent research effort done by scholars at the New School and funded by four pillars of Chicago’s philanthropic community, The Chicago Community Trust, The Kresge Foundation, Polk Bros. Foundation, and The JPMorgan Chase Foundation, told its story in its title: “Color of Wealth in Chicago”

“The Color of Wealth in Chicago study examines data beyond income and focuses on wealth, which is a paramount indicator of financial security and agency…” because of the importance of wealth in enabling a secure and humane level of living is so clear and enduring.

Wealthier families are better positioned to finance elite educations, access capital to start a business, buy a house, pay for expensive medical procedures, reside in higher amenity neighborhoods, exert political influence, purchase better counsel if confronted with an expensive legal system, leave a bequest, and withstand many financial hardships resulting from any number of emergencies or shocks, including a global pandemic. Wealth is intergenerational and iterative; it compounds upon itself and grows exponentially both within and across generations. Basically, wealth generates more wealth, and without access to capital then inequality across individuals, families and communities is likely to persist.

And the data tell a clear and unavoidable story. Black and Brown communities are significantly poorer than their white neighbors.

White families have the highest median net worth ($210,000) while Black families reported a median net worth of virtually no wealth ($0). In Chicago, the median net worth estimates for a U.S. born Mexican family is $40,500 (which amounts to 19 percent of a typical White family), for a foreign-born Mexican family it is $6,000 (which amounts to only three percent of a typical White family), and the estimate for the typical Puerto Rican family is $24,000 (which is about 11 percent of the wealth of the typical White family).

The report provides much of the detail that underlies this top line examining liquid assets as well as those coming from home ownership and other less liquid sources. Read it closely.

But none of the detail undercuts the stark impact of a large Chicago metro population with a net worth of ZERO or Hispanic communities whose wealthiest sub-set US Born Mexican families has been only able to achieve 19% of the wealth of their white neighbors.  This picture might have some variance if we were able to look at comparable data for other communities or for the nation as a whole, but I think the differences would be on the edges not in the overall picture itself.

Almost a year ago I observed that:

Without an unvarnished picture of the past, repair is an impossible task. None of us like to see ourselves that clearly, I cringe when I think I have caused someone harm. We excuse ourselves; we claim ignorance; we protest that we had no bad intention; we blame the victims; and we absolve ourselves from responsibility. All this is a way of not having to take responsibility and thus without that responsibility not having to repair the harm we have caused.   We are remiss and we are certainly responsible. I wonder if we, as a nation, are capable of rising to this challenge. Societally we seem increasingly unwilling to recognize our history and the wounds that remain open because of the harm that we have done. And those of us whose lives have been made better because of those harms too often refuse to recognize that, even if we personally did not directly hurt others, because we have benefitted, we are responsible.

Inequality is rooted in our history. But because our history is telling us a story we do not want to hear we are now doing everything we can to erase it, to rewrite it, in order to make us comfortable in our privilege.

Our national policies have allowed wealth to be concentrated in a smaller and smaller slice of our people and the continued centuries of exclusion for communities of color. Those policies have meant we have a government starved of resources so it cannot build a robust safety net. Those policies have ignored the need for a program of reparations that can address historic wrongs and return some portion of the wealth that has been taken.

Unfortunately just a few years after the nation had a reckoning with its racist foundations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the N.Y. Times’ publication of the 1619 Project, there are only small-scale efforts to address it. Cities like Evanston, Illinois have begun to implement beginning reparation programs. But in too many cases the best we have been able to do is create commissions to study the issue. And that minimal step has not even been possible at the national level where bills to establish a national study commission have not been able to advance even to the level of committee hearings.

Two steps you can take. Tell your Congressperson and Senator that you want them to enact a bill establishing a national commission to develop recommendations for a national reparations program.  And you can tell those same men and women that you want them to support a set of changes to our tax code that will address the growing wealth imbalance and keep the problem from getting worse. If you don’t know who to call use this LINK!