“I want to live in America.”
I was twelve years old, shelling peas with my mother in our kitchen in Limuru, Kenya, when I first uttered those words. My mother paused and said to me, “Well, then you better study hard and do well in school. The door will only open for those who knock.”
My mother’s advice was a guiding force for the nine years to follow. I completed high school with excellent scores, and went on to receive my B.A. at the University of Nairobi. Then in 1994, while working as an organizer in my community, I received a scholarship from USAID, which allowed me to build on my local development efforts through a course in Washington, D.C.
Finally, I’d made it to the land of opportunity! America was in many ways true to my imagination: full of kind and generous people who were curious about life in other places, highly resourced institutions that worked efficiently, excellent public transportation, beautiful buildings and fast cars all around me.
But, walking through some of the poorer neighborhoods of D.C., I encountered something I hadn’t imagined. I found that much of this country’s wonderful offerings did not reach all of its citizens. Some of the extremes of poverty I witnessed weren’t much different from those of the Nairobi slums.
It made me wonder: How could so much need exist in this land of plenty?
The poorest D.C. residents clearly had very limited access to productive and meaningful economic opportunities. For some, even the most basic needs went unmet.
I was often asked how it was possible that I, a young woman from Kenya, was able to attend graduate school while so many here are unable to attain even a high school diploma. Many of those baffled by my circumstances were African Americans, who didn’t view a college education as something they could ever reach.
Six months later, I went back home to Kenya, my vision of America significantly altered by the time I had spent here.
More than a decade has passed since my first trip to the U.S. Today, I live here with my family, and have made a career out of understanding the factors that make extreme inequality possible.
If we view economic inequality in the U.S. through a racial lens, it becomes clear that Black Americans have experienced diminished progress in recent decades. For example, from 1947 to 1977 Blacks gained five cents to each dollar of median family income for White workers, but in the three decades since, they have gained only one cent.
The American reality may have been far from a dream for people of color in the 1940's, but upward mobility has since become even more difficult. The stagnation of wages for the lowest earners, depression-like unemployment rates among people of color and increased economic segregation have helped to create racialized pockets of destitution. As a result, people of color depend far more on unemployment insurance and other social safety net programs than do Whites.
This is directly attributable to pre-existing wealth disparities and ongoing economic policies that disproportionately benefit wealthier Americans.
To make matters worse, conservative politicians at all levels of government are calling for drastic and poorly informed budget cuts. Such proposals would be damaging to vital programs such as education, food safety, environmental protection, housing assistance, and community services, to name a few, and would be particularly debilitating to communities of color.
An austerity plan will exacerbate low and middle income Americans’ struggle to make ends meet, causing demand to fall, the economy to contract and the jobs crisis to continue unabated. And, it will only worsen the vast inequalities in our economy.
The American promise certainly beckons, and I am a living testament to the power of its allure. But, without a bold and progressive policy approach to address economic inequality, such a promise will never be fulfilled. Changing this reality will require each of us to join together in a movement for greater equality and justice for all.
Read UFE's report, State of the Dream 2011: Austerity for Whom?, for more on this issue.
This op-ed by Wanjiku Mwangi, UFE's Racial Wealth Divide Initiative Leader, was originally published on April 23, 2011 in The Black Commentator, a magazine that provides insight and analysis on issues affecting African Americans.