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Everyone Should Have the Opportunity to Succeed | Commentary

One of America’s central beliefs is that everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.

Indeed, an enduring quality of our great nation is that all individuals should have the ability, through education and hard work, to build better lives for themselves and their families.

We have a challenge in making sure this opportunity is fully present in all communities. Joblessness among minority groups is stubbornly higher than the national average. The most recent unemployment rate for Latinos ages 16 to 24 was 16.6 percent and the rate among African-Americans in the same age group was a staggering 28.2 percent. When there is an endemic lack of opportunity, people are robbed of hope. It is destabilizing to individuals, families and communities and breeds the despair that leads to crime and blight.

As chairman and honorary co-chairman of INSIGHT America we recently hosted a Capitol Hill forum titled “Building Wealth in Our Communities” to explore new approaches to addressing problems that have defied traditional government solutions.

The forum covered the building blocks of financial success — financial literacy, homeownership and entrepreneurship — and explored how to better disseminate information and create opportunities in minority communities.

The distinguished panelists were former Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson, a vice chairman at JPMorgan; Lynette Bell, first vice president and community development manager at SunTrust Bank; Judy Chapa, vice president at the Financial Services Roundtable; and Dr. Rickie Keys, president of Renewal Financial Services.

Keys spoke from his perspective of specifically working with the unbanked and the under-banked who have incomplete credit records.

“There are four primary steps to escape poverty and become prosperous in today’s economy. Families must increase their income, save and invest money before they spend it, live within their means and pay less in taxes, fees and interest. For black, Hispanic and impoverished families, these tasks may seem daunting,” Keys stated.

But there are important first steps that can be taken, such as creating a budget and paying bills on time. While those practices might seem basic to some, 56 percent of adults admit they do not have a budget and more than 77 million Americans do not pay all of their bills when due, according to research done by the Financial Services Roundtable. It is important for us to understand that an inability to pay bills on time and operate inside a budget affects one’s opportunity to obtain credit which then affects one’s purchasing power.

Jackson, in stressing the powerful virtue of self-discipline, made a strong case for the value of homeownership in minority communities. He said despite the experiences of the economic downturn, responsible homeownership remains the American dream.

“For most Americans, homeownership is the greatest wealth that they will ever achieve. It should be our mission to make this possible for all of those who are able to maintain this achievement,” he said.

Jackson expressed concern that new regulations intended to address abuses identified in segments of the housing market are swinging the pendulum too far, denying minority populations, among others, access to affordable credit and mortgage loans.

There was considerable discussion on increasing opportunity at each rung of the economic ladder. This can range from an entry-level summer job to making sure capital is available to aspiring entrepreneurs as envisioned by the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, bipartisan legislation that originated in the House Financial Services Committee.

Minority-owned businesses are looking for ways to have a meaningful seat at the table. They want to be able to make their case when it comes time for decisions to be made at the procurement table and they are then prepared to live with a decision that has been made strictly on the merits.

When it comes to the formulation of public policy to address these issues, Dr. Keys observed, “Government is not responsible for mandating these tasks, but it must be a conducive environment in which responsibility and personal initiative can flourish.”

The hope of INSIGHT America is that the standing-room audience of Hill staffers and economic development professionals at the forum were given new ideas on how to approach these issues and that relationships were formed that will promote the development of more effective policy for communities of color.

What remains true is that success must be possible for everyone in our society and that success is most satisfying when it is achieved through one’s own determination and hard work.

Rep. Spencer Bachus is chairman emeritus of the House Financial Services Committee and represents the 6th District of Alabama. He is an honorary co-chairman of INSIGHT America. J.C. Watts Jr. is founder and chairman of INSIGHT America and represented the 4th District of Oklahoma in the House from 1995 to 2003.

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