One of Occupy Wall Street's greatest achievements thus far has been its aggressive — and very public — underscoring of what we have all known for a long time: America is a nation of tremendous, heartbreaking inequality.
But in the midst of the public debate over whether the movement's aims are always crystal clear, what often get obscured are the hard facts about those communities within the 99 percent that have been hit first and worst by the nation's inequality.
Right now the rate of black unemployment is nearly double that of whites. America faces an unprecedented racial wealth gap brought on by the worst housing crisis in U.S. history. And by 2018, a projected 45 percent of all jobs in this country will demand at least an associate degree — though, among today's workers, only 27 percent of African Americans have earned at least that.
The 2010 Census has also projected that by 2042, people of color will be the majority in America. Given these rapidly changing demographics, the nation can no longer afford to operate under the same unequal, trickle-down policies that led to the current cirsis. To get back on track, America needs a new economic framework, one that is fair and inclusive for all people. The country needs an equity-driven growth model.
In a new report, "America's Tomorrow: Equity Is the Superior Growth Model" (pdf), PolicyLink explains that such a model would merge two agendas that have traditionally been separate: the agenda to grow new jobs and bolster long-term competitiveness, and the agenda to ensure that all within the borders — especially low-income people and people of color — have the opportunity to benefit from and co-create that growth.
This means rebuilding the nation's public infrastructure, its transit lines, roads, schools, bridges and sidewalks. It means growing new businesses and new jobs and preparing our existing and incoming workforce to compete in a 21st-century global economy. The nation must embrace the emerging racial and ethnic majority as an asset and make investments that will allow the next generation to truly thrive and succeed.
This idea has already started to take hold, seeding itself into the conversations of advocates, policy innovators and thought leaders across the country.
Earlier this month at the PolicyLink Equity 2011 Summit, more than 2,000 activists, community builders, organizers and progressive academics joined White House officials and foundation leaders in Detroit to discuss how this new model can be transformative in promoting opportunity and prosperity for communities of color, and for everyone.
Supporting this new model, the Center for American Progress asserts that "leaders seeking to foster economic growth and competitiveness will need to develop a new focus on equity, not to gain recognition for social responsibility or community-mindedness but to achieve their primary goals of growth and competitiveness in the long run."
Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, says that through equity, we can expand opportunity for 15 million American children living in poverty today. And Neal Peirce of the Washington Post Writers Group, in his latest column, argues that an equity agenda can spark economic growth.
Now it is time for America's leaders and legislators to recognize and accept equity as not merely an issue of social justice or morality but of economic necessity.
We've seen it done before: After World War II, under both Republican Gov. Earl Warren and Democratic Gov. Pat Brown, California's public- and private-sector leaders recognized the importance of preparing the state's changing population — at the time predominantly poor, uneducated and white — for the needs of the modern economy. In 1962 Newsweek ran an article entitled "The No. 1 State: Booming, Beautiful California."
That was an equity agenda — invest in the future, invest in those who are being left behind, invest based on needs.
For America to secure the future, we must affirm what many economists have already begun to realize, and Occupiers are now fighting to prove: Reducing inequality is actually conducive to robust and sustainable economic growth.
Equity is the superior growth model.
Angela Glover Blackwell is the founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing economic and social equity. She is co-author of Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future.