Can We Do More to Help Blacks Improve Their Lot?


Nebraska is a progressive state in many respects.  Last fall we raised our state minimum wage.   The Nebraska Legislature is now on the verge of eliminating the death penalty.  Seven years ago the Legislature established the Learning Community in metro Omaha, whose purpose is to eliminate the academic achievement gap between children from the middle class and those living in low-income families.
CaptureI am an elected member of the Learning Community Coordinating Council which oversees the work of the LC.  As such I give a lot of thought to the plight of the low-income black community in north Omaha.  My own answer to the question in the title is yes, of course, there is more we can do but it needs to be carefully directed.  I have written several previous posts on this topic. Here and here.
For example, the Hamilton Project has an excellent program, ”Policies to Address Poverty in America,”  which calls for a highly focused effort along the lines of:

  • Promoting Early Childhood Development
  • Supporting Disadvantaged Youth
  • Building Skills
  • Improving the Safety Net and Work Support

Mr. Robert Balfanz, the Director of the Everyone Graduates Center at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, suggests focusing on the toughest 660 out of 12,600 high schools in the U.S. which fully one-half of non-graduating students attend.  More specifically:

  • Refocus these high poverty high schools in order to identify by the middle of the ninth grade the students most likely to drop out.
  • Set up early warning systems so that adults can step in at the first sign that a student is in trouble.
  • Employ additional adults to support students who need daily nagging to succeed, especially during the key transitional years in the sixth and ninth grades.

These two programs have lots of similarities and are focused on at-risk inner-city youth.  Massive black underachievement is a huge social problem, and ultimately a huge drain on our entire economy as well.  More than just good intentions are necessary for effective intervention.  An intelligent and focused approach as described here would be a good way to proceed.

Honoring Martin Luther King’s Legacy


Every year at this time, our nation is reminded of the progress our country has made in race relations as well as the work which remains to be done.  Here are three different approaches to concrete actions which can be taken to help black Americans improve their lot.
Not too long ago I quoted the black scholar, John McWhorter, as follows “Today’s struggle should focus on three priorities.  First, the war on drugs, a policy that unnecessarily tears apart black families and neighborhoods.  Second, community colleges and vocational education, which are invaluable for helping black Americans get ahead.  And third, the AIDS and obesity epidemics, which are ravaging black communities.”
An extensive report by the Hamilton Project (associated with the Brookings Institute), “Policies to Address Poverty in America,” focuses on four discrete areas where progress can be achieved:

  • Promoting Early Childhood Development
  • Supporting Disadvantaged Youth
  • Building Skills
  • Improving the Safety Net and Work Support

Capture Finally, the Budget Committee of the House of Representatives has recently released a new plan, “Expanding Opportunity in America,” proposing to redesign the American welfare system to help more people move off the bottom rung.  The idea is to let selected states experiment in consolidating separate means-tested programs such as SNAP, TANF, childcare and housing assistance programs, into a new holistic Opportunity Grant Program.  Here’s how it would work:

  • Each participating state will approve a list of certified providers who are held accountable for achieving results such as moving people to work, out of poverty and off of assistance.
  • Needy individuals will select a provider who will conduct a comprehensive assessment of that person’s needs, abilities and circumstances.
  • The provider and the recipient will develop a customized plan and contract both for immediate financial needs and also for long term goals towards self-sufficiency.
  • Successful completion of a contract will include able-bodied individuals obtaining a job and earning enough to live above the poverty line.

Here are three very distinct sources addressing the issue of black poverty in America. All three approaches are looking for practical solutions to a very difficult problem and they have a lot in common. This suggests that it should be possible for national leaders to come together and take effective action!

Escaping the Student Debt Trap


Student debt in the U.S. now tops $1.2 trillion with 37 million borrows, 5.4 million of whom have already defaulted.  President Obama has proposed to expand a program which allows students to repay debt based on what they earn, eventually forgiving the balance.  Massachusetts Senator Warren has proposed taxing millionaires to pay for student loan refinancing.  Small scale free market proposals abound.  What is badly needed is a sensible broad-based public program approved by Congress.
CaptureThe Brookings Institution has recently proposed just such a model for student loan repayment “Loans for Educational Opportunity: Making Borrowing Work for Today’s Students”.  It is based on four observations:

  • Moderate debt for the typical student borrower. 69% of students have borrowed $10,000 or less.
  • The high payoff of a college education. Over a lifetime the holder of a bachelor’s degree earns several hundred thousand dollars more than a high school graduate. Even those who attend college but do not graduate will experience an income gain of about $100,000.  Postsecondary education should be encouraged as widely as possible.
  • The highest rates of default are on typical loan balances. The average loan balance in default is $14,000 while the average loan balance in good standing is $22,000.
  • The highest rates of default are among young borrowers. For borrowers under age 21, 28% have defaulted, for borrowers between ages 30 and 44, 18% have defaulted and it is 12% for borrowers aged 45 and older.

The Brookings’ authors propose that student loan payments be deducted from pay by the employer, in the same way as for income taxes and Social Security.  The payment rate would be only 3% of the first $10,000 in annual earnings and would rise with higher earnings topping out at 10%.  Loan payments will stop when the loan is repaid or after 25 years, whichever comes first.  Various measures can be adopted to protect against deadbeats.  See the Brookings report for details.
The fairest system would be for all students, past and present, to be put into a program like this.  Nobody would be expected to pay during periods of unemployment. Interest rates could be adjusted from year to year to make the program self-supporting. Something along these lines is badly needed!