Assessing the Black Community: TNJ honorees describe top challenges and solutions

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As the year approached its halfway point, The Network Journal asked some of its “25 Influential Black Women in Business” honorees to describe the top three challenges to the economic wellness of America’s Black community and how they would like to see them addressed. Here are responses from four of them. The views they express are entirely personal, not those of their professional affiliations.

Lisa A. BingLisa A. Bing
President, Bing Consulting Group Inc. Brooklyn, N.Y.

Top three challenges:
• Lack of personal responsibility
• A disproportionate number of health problems
• Too many uneducated and undereducated Blacks

Why these three? “I certainly don’t discount the fact that racism continues to exist. However, there is much that we are not doing for ourselves. Worse, we blame others or expect someone else to fix things for us. At the turn of the 20th century, Maggie Lena Walker, a Black woman, was the first woman in the United States to found a bank! We have many opportunities and resources, but we assume the victim position, which teaches our children to absolve themselves of personal responsibility.”

“If we are not healthy, it becomes that much harder, if not impossible, to achieve. It is no secret that Black Americans suffer a higher incidence of diabetes, stroke and heart disease. The Covenant with Black America (Smiley, Tavis, ed., Third World Press, 2006) reports that Black Americans have the highest incidence of hypertension in the world! These conditions lead to chronic disability and premature death. There is also a mound of evidence showing the correlation between healthy self-esteem and achievement. Research also shows a correlation between healthy relationships and mental health.”
“It almost goes without saying that we must restore the value of education among young people. We need the best teachers in the most deprived areas, and it requires the family and authority figures to help young people experience the value of education.”

Solutions. “Two roads can be taken: What can I do to take responsibility for myself? What can I do to affect policy and systems? First, decide that you want to be healthy—physically and mentally—and successful, then identify small steps you can take to improve and maintain your health, whether it is to stop smoking or start walking a few times a week. Educate yourself about healthy living and learn to recognize health issues.”

“Help a young person learn to value education. Little things can make a difference. You may be spotted reading a book by someone you don’t know, which results in inspiring that person. Or you may become more directly involved by working with young people in some way. The least any of us can do on any issue is to use our vote wisely. Stop assuming the victim position. Victims are not powerful, and without power, not much will be done.”

“It is time for Black men to start rebuilding their esteem. Too many talented, smart Black men are languishing on the sidelines, waiting for someone to make it safe for them to come out and play. It also is time for Black women to start having higher expectations of Black men.”

Cheryl Mayberry McKissackCheryl Mayberry McKissack
Founder, Chairman and CEO
Nia Enterprises, Chicago

Top three challenges:
• Lack of investment and savings
• Widening socio-economic gap, with disappearance of the Black middle class
• The inability to mobilize as “one voice” to draw attention and create solutions to the economic issues African-Americans face

Why? “While we are making progress in many areas, we are losing ground in key areas that are crucial to our economic survival. Recent data in the 2006 Ariel/Schwab Black Investor Study reveals that African-Americans have less money saved and contribute less to their retirement accounts than whites. The study also states that the percentage of higher-income African-Americans with stock investments is trending downward, from a high of 74 percent in 2002 to 64 percent in 2006. Meanwhile, the number of higher-income whites with stock investments is virtually unchanged since the inception of the study in 1998.The data are highlighted by the continued focus on consumption versus saving, with the consumer buying power of African-Americans having reached an all-time high of $719 billion in 2005, according to Target Market News.”

“Recent reports indicate that while the proportion of upper-income African-Americans is growing, there also has been an increase in the percentage being “left behind.” This broadening gap among Blacks has created additional divisiveness, erupting in discord among African-American groups that have historically provided leadership on these issues.”

Solutions. “The first step is to take ownership of the problems and execute solutions that we can implement within our own communities. We must continue to put the spotlight on these issues with education and tools that allow African-Americans better access to our economy. We need to dispel the notion that you must make a lot of money in order to invest or save for your future.”

“African-Americans who have achieved a level of financial success must continue to assist the growing group of African-Americans falling further behind. Special attention must be given to the empowerment and success of our Black men. Programs that assist first-time home ownership and savings and investment education, as well as Black-sponsored investment clubs, can assist in opening the doors for those who are traditionally left out.”
“We must get involved in organizations that will allow our voice on these important issues to be heard. The Internet has become an important tool in mobilizing all African- Americans, regardless of economic status, to be heard and to be able to disseminate information and tools that can make a difference.”

Gwendolyn D. SkillernGwendolyn D. Skillern
C.P.A., Senior Vice President-General Auditor
CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield
Owings Mills, Md.

Top three challenges:
• Financial literacy
• Health disparities
• Education

Why? “We want the biggest, most luxurious name brand items; we buy large homes in expensive neighborhoods and luxury cars. We do not save. This trend transcends all income and educational levels. In 2007, our most affluent Black communities are projected to have the highest foreclosure rates.”
“In the state of Maryland, 24 percent of the population went without health care for some part of the past two years. In addition, 98 percent of businesses in Maryland are small businesses and 53 percent do not offer health insurance. The high percentage of uninsured is largely due to the high cost of health care and the passage of a greater share of the cost from the employer to the employee.”

“Inner-city and urban-area schools across the nation are in crisis, [as] evidenced by low academic achievement, high dropout rates, school closings, declining facilities and scarce resources. In addition, the No Child Left Behind law establishes accountability measures for academic achievement and teacher qualifications in public schools, placing pressure on the schools to meet higher standards. As state funding to schools is cut and the tax base of urban cities declines due to the flight of businesses and residents to the suburbs, resources become scarce. In addition, as a greater percentage of middle to high income families move their children into private schools, fewer parents volunteer and advocate on behalf of the schools and private donations decline.”

Solutions. “Improve our financial literacy. The National Association of Black Accountants launched “Money Sense,” a program to teach our students, professionals, parents and members of the community sound fiscal management tools and techniques. The goal is to touch 3,000 lives in 2007. Until we take control of our finances and manage our money wisely, we will not be economically viable as a race and we will not have the means to leave a legacy to future generations.”

“We must work to ensure that affordable health care is accessible to all Americans by expanding eligibility guidelines and subsidizing fees for state-sponsored programs; setting up ways for small businesses to better afford health insurance for their workers through tax and other state subsidies; and working with corporations to encourage minimizing the amount of costs that can be passed to the employee. Regulators should develop strategies to eliminate health disparities through health education and other programs to ensure that all groups have access to the same levels of service.”

“Greater state and local funds must be allocated to the public school system to allow schools to provide adequate equipment and facilities and pay competitive salaries to teachers. More citizens must volunteer in our schools, mentor children and make private donations of dollars and supplies. Only then can the emphasis be placed on implementing strong academic programs and hiring and training highly qualified teachers to allow the schools to meet the standards of the new regulations.”

Valerie D. White
Director, Corporate & Government Ratings Standard & Poor’s, New York City

Top three challenges:
• Building savings
• Establishing investment portfolios
• Educating our children at a young age on money management, savings and investment

Why? “In some cases, our community tends to live from paycheck to paycheck, primarily due to life styles that exceed earnings. These life styles likely include aggressive mortgage products, excessive credit card or other revolving balances on which only the minimum amount due is paid each month, and/or excessive purchasing in general.”

“Many of us do not participate in the securities markets. Some of us either have no knowledge of market investments and how to establish and grow a portfolio, or tend not to want to “risk” money that could be used to buy an item that yields an immediate return.”
“Our families often do not work to establish sound financial habits for children by helping them to understand the concepts of budgeting and money management through their allowance, monetary gifts, etc., or in family financial planning exercises. In other cases, our children do not participate in individual or family long-term savings and investment planning.”

Solutions. “Our community has been making an effort, through various public service and community development organizations, to establish educational forums to make Black people cognizant of these concepts and of how to grow wealth. However, the key to building savings is twofold: establishing a set monthly savings amount that is within earnings reality and sticking to that amount; and not touching the savings balance unless a dire financial emergency exists.”
“All of our Black families, as individual units, must establish healthy financial planning and investment strategies designed for the long-term growth of wealth within the Black community. We should fully participate in the healthy growth of the nation’s economy and be seen as a distinct group that is a significant economic force. We can and should be active participants in the market, determining an amount that we are willing to risk to help build our financial wealth. We should develop prudent investment strategies that correlate with the causes that further the growth and strength of our community.”
“Our children will learn best from example and by participating in growing wealth and in financial planning strategies and goals for the entire family. These are important lessons that they can pass on to future generations.