The Price of Hope: A Few Thousand Dollars
Last month, I was humbled to give the closing remarks at the 2016 Assets Learning Conference. This blog post contains the prepared version of those remarks. I would be honored to hear your feedback and your ideas for how we can fulfill the American Promise. Please share your thoughts by Tweeting me at @CFEDBob.
First and last, I want to thank ALL of you for making this Conference, and this growing Movement. The core team – Kristin, Leigh, Jocelyn, Adnan, Melissa, Sean, Sarah, Karianna. My 80 colleagues at Prosperity Now, who pulled off this feat, and are as kind as they are smart, dedicated and good dancers; my 19 fellow Board members, all giants in their own right, who give their best; our Sponsors and Exhibitors, without whom none of this would be possible; 350 presenters, who made possible 70+ brilliant breakouts; 500 Hill advocates, who completed nearly 200 visits. And most all, all of you. Please stand—our partners and colleagues, our friends and family, our teachers and students, who everyday open the doors to the Opportunity Economy we seek. Sometimes I think we owe you a warning: this work can be habit forming. Those who enter rarely leave and instead, go on to lead.
I—we—believe in the promise of America contained in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness." I admit I amended "man" to "people," but then, so has our history. The original version of the promise read, "Life, Liberty and Property," which I used to think was an inferior version, but increasingly, I see the truth in it.
Until the last few months I thought—wrongly—that we had made great progress on Life and Liberty, and I could afford to focus on economic liberty and the basic economic endowment that could afford the Pursuit of Happiness. Tulsa and Charlotte, Minneapolis, Ferguson, Baltimore, Orlando and so many other cities have changed that.
Bryan Stevenson calls mass incarceration and the perversion of our criminal justice system the fourth stage of slavery in this country. But then he notes the hope: "The opposite of poverty is justice."
As we rededicate ourselves to all forms of justice, let us recognize our particular calling: economic justice. I had the opportunity earlier this week to tour the National Museum of African-American History. At its base is the display of our original sin, the greatest cruelty and injustice of our history. But it rises to the greatest expressions of the human soul as one climbs—music and sport, politics, art and culture. In one corner, Booker T. Washington speaks: "At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, at the bottom of religion itself, there must be for our race…economic independence." He might have added health and mental health, debt, stress and home, and so much more. As demonstrated in this conference.
I think liquid asset poverty is a form of economic slavery. Because property and wealth are inputs as well as outputs. The price of economic independence in this country is at least a few thousand dollars—the price of stability, the price of confidence, the price of hope—the price of a downpayment on the American Dream.
If so, asset tax policy—our two-thirds of a trillion annual upside-down investment in family economic independence in wealth inequality—is the continuing shackle of economic slavery. But it can become the key to the Opportunity Economy, where everyone, EVERYONE—people of color, women, people with disabilities (Ed Roberts called disability the equal opportunity disadvantage), immigrants, ex-offenders, the young, the old, even white men—has an economic place to stand, an opportunity to grow this economy, and to support themselves and their families in so doing. Instead of rewarding the rich, missing the middle and penalizing the poor, let us turn this annual investment averaging $2,000 for every man, woman and child every year into an investment in the promise of all people, so that the common genius may come out and flourish. In this universal infrastructure where, in Fred Goldberg's memorable description, "everyone has a number and everyone counts," will we have the political acceptability, ability and cash flow to target investments, give every child a more equal start and begin to close the racial wealth divide.
Now is our time. If economic exclusion is the fact of our time, economic inclusion is its promise. It is high time, in Langston Hughes terms, to "Let America be America again…the America that never was, yet still must be." This is our work.
It is an ambitious calling—some might say an impossible calling—to turn the assets tax code right side up, to create universal targeted Child Savings Accounts, to close the Racial Wealth Divide. But the time is right…and ripe. The simple truth is that everyone will gain from opening the doors to the economy in this way to the talents, aspirations and sweat of every American—to the potential contributions of millions of new entrepreneurs, homeowners, savers, students, citizens. This is the way—it is the only way, I think—to begin to close the gaping racial wealth divide, in Lincoln's terms—"to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all … to give everyone an equal start and a fair chance in the race of life." In this way, we can fulfill the promise of America, which is truly, the promise of Americans…of all of us.
I know your lives are full, but if we are to take history in hand and bend its arc towards justice, it will require all of us to devote some time to explaining to our colleagues and friends, parents and children, the Promise at stake, and the time to continue this nation's fight for an economy of the people, by the people, for the people.
And so I want to end where I began—thanking all of you, and all of your colleagues back home all over this country, who are the heart of this movement and the hope for realizing the American Promise. This is the room where it happens. Thank you.