THE BLOG

Our New Civil Rights Issue: Access to Economic Opportunity

02/10/2015 01:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

All the talk about the country's economy roaring back to its pre-Recession glory overlooks one startling fact: The 1 percent is grabbing the lion's share of our economic growth. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute disclosed that, since the recovery began, "incomes of the top 1 percent grew faster than the bottom 99 percent in every state except West Virginia," and that "in 17 of these states, the top 1 percent captured 100 percent of income growth."

If our recovery is only hitting those that the recession hurt least, we have a problem.

The civil rights issue of our times is the intensifying inequality between the haves and have nots. We must not turn our backs on 100 million Americans--because the fate of the poor is the fate of us all. If those at the bottom no longer believe that following the rules of education, hard work, clean living and paying taxes will lead to opportunities for success, society is screwed.

Unleashing economic energy of the poor
The poor don't just need "help;" they need investment. They need to be treated as customers and job creators. It's well documented that poor neighborhoods have enormous unmet need for mainstream services--everything from banking to gas stations to grocery stores. Meeting that need provides a step toward producing effective economic energy.

Poor communities represent enormous resources of wealth creation and opportunity just waiting to be unleashed. Project 5117 is a program to set this opportunity in motion. It focuses on empowering people earning less than $50,000 a year through home ownership counseling, credit card debt management, and comprehensive training in entrepreneurship.

Providing access to finance and financial literacy is the underlying solution to creating job opportunities--not just government-sponsored jobs.

Overturning myths
In order to secure a full, deep economic recovery across all swathes of our nation, we must overturn myths that the poor are somehow not relevant to our economic growth--or that they're responsible for their poverty and did this to themselves.

As an African American who grew up in the L.A. projects, I was desperate to find the right tools to lift myself up. I know first-hand that what the poor lack is financial literacy, financial capability, and financial empowerment. I owe my success to a banker who came to talk at my school and opened my eyes to the world of entrepreneurism.

Banking on our future
We need to share the memo in low-income communities about achieving financial success. Just as the banker uncovered a new path for me, Operation HOPE is taking financial literacy courses into inner-city classrooms. One student in Detroit, Derrick, went through the course. Afterward, I offered Derrick and two of his friends $70, and gave them three minutes to decide how they'd spend it. They didn't need three minutes.

Derrick's friends wanted to buy a pair of Nike Air Jordans, for which they'd need an additional $30. But Derrick wanted to buy one share of Nike stock (which then was $64, and now goes for over $94--that's money making more money). His friends teased him, but when I started to defend Derrick, he said, "No, it's cool. I actually want them to buy those shoes because when they do, they're making me money."

Derrick got the memo.

Taking on this critical civil rights issue means we must expand access to finance and financial literacy. People in poverty are starved for a chance to gain their measure of financial dignity. At the recent 2015 HOPE Global Forum in Atlanta, thousands convened to learn how "hundredaires" could become billionaires.

Committing to these and other innovative approaches will build financial opportunities to help balance the scale that now leans so heavily on the side of the 1 percent.

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John Hope Bryant (johnhopebryant.com) is author of the new book called How the Poor Can Save Capitalism: Rebuilding the Path to the Middle Class (Berrett-Koehler, 2014). He is founder, chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE, a nonprofit banker for the working poor, which provides financial literacy for youth, financial capability for communities, and financial dignity for all. Learn more at www.operationhope.org.