Last month, African Americans across the country voted in record numbers. That was a victory, but not an ending. Now, we have to stay involved. Just as President Obama and Congress turned immediately from the election to negotiating a path away from the "fiscal slope," Americans who turned out to vote -- including African Americans -- must remain engaged in the work of our country.
The "fiscal slope" -- automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that will hit Americans at the end of the year if Congress does nothing -- will impact every American, from billionaire investors to the mother who's feeding her children on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. And because of that, it's important that everyone is in on the discussion of how to solve the problem.
President Obama wants to avoid the fiscal slope by ensuring that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share. Republicans in Congress want to do anything they can to protect the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and want even deeper spending cuts that would hurt the Americans who are already hurting. Throughout our history, our government has played an essential role in spurring economic growth and fostering individual opportunity. But now, thanks to the skewed priorities of House Republicans, we are facing devastating cuts to the social services that are most needed when we are at our most vulnerable.
Cuts on social services and tax hikes for lower- and middle-income earners will disproportionately affect African Americans who, as a whole have a much smaller personal safety net to fall back on. Thirty-five percent of black Americans live below the poverty line, the highest rate for any ethnic group. What's more, the disparity in wealth -- personal financial cushions -- between African Americans and white Americans is at an all-time high. In 2009, the latest year for which data is available, black families had an average household net worth of just under $6,000. Meanwhile, the average net worth of white families was 20 times greater, over $113,000.
The safety nets that catch all Americans catch black Americans. Five million African-American seniors depend on Medicare. Seven million non-elderly African Americans don't have health insurance. African Americans, like all Americans, rely on federal student loans and quality public education to access equal opportunities for our futures.
A combination of swift tax hikes on lower- and middle-income earners and drastic cuts in social services would not only stunt economic growth, it would place an immediate burden on the most vulnerable. And unfortunately, a disproportionate number of the most vulnerable are African American.
Leaders in the Black Church were instrumental in bringing about the record African-American turnout on Election Day. We preached that there is no social justice without civic engagement and made sure everybody in our communities had the will and a way to get to the polls. But we need to remember that civic engagement doesn't end with voting and social justice doesn't end with elections.
Let's write letters, call our members of Congress, and organize our communities. Many of our elected officials turned around directly after the election to start addressing these urgent challenges. It's our responsibility to do the same.
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