The Opportunity Agenda was founded with the mission of building the national will to expand opportunity in America, a reflection of the core American belief that where we start out in life should not determine where we end up. The vision that we will have a country in which your possibilities are determined by you is central to the American self-concept.
The Economic Policy Institute recently reported that the income of the top 1% in this country grew 214% between 1979 and 2007. During that same time period, the income of the lowest quintile grew only 4%. Income inequality has not improved during our fragile recovery, either. This is reflected in the picture emerging from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in general at the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the Washington Post describes it, we see a "tale of two recoveries." Roberta Avila, Executive Director of the STEPS Coalition in Mississippi, describes her work post-Katrina:
"In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I became the Director for the MS Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force and was thrown headlong into disaster recovery work. Church World Service’s manual on Faith-Based Disaster Long Term Recovery became my guide. I read the entire manual in one sitting and I recall being struck by these words in the first chapter: ‘The poor and less powerful are often ignored even when they are visible and loud. Even when they are seen and heard, they still may get a smaller portion of assistance than the rich and powerful.’ I was determined that night to prevent this sad prophecy. Nevertheless, five years post Katrina these words ring true."
In other economic news, the recent release of the unemployment numbers for August is notable primarily because the data show very little change from the month before. Again, the numbers hover between nine and ten percent, the rate for African Americans is more than 150% of the rate for the total population, and there are still distinct disparities based on educational attainment.
What do these two points have in common? The underlying, but difficult-to-accept truth, that significant structural change is going to be required for the American economy to begin to achieve stability, growth, and equity. Many of the jobs that existed before the recession began are gone and are unlikely to come back. Although this seems like a dispiriting truth – and it does mean difficult economic times for all of us – it also opens us to the possibility of transformative thinking. Now is the time to be responsive to American ingenuity in our drive to put Americans back to work.
It’s in all of our interest to define common-sense solutions to jump-start our economic recovery and to push for innovative ideas that leave aside partisan politics.