The Rev. Starsky D. Wilson has been extending his thought leadership at the Deaconess Foundation by commissioning important studies and convening discussions of them at the Deaconess Center of Child Well-Being in the “Just for Kids: Community Conversation” series. Last Thursday, September 20, the foundation released two reports, one on strategies for pursuing more progressive governance in Missouri and the other on the importance of investing in minority leadership of non-profit organizations. The guest who led the discussion of these reports, Manuel Pastor, a professor of Sociology and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, made some piercing remarks that speak directly to the mission of our own black-led non-profit organization, the St. Louis American Foundation, just before its signature annual event, the Salute to Excellence in Education.
“The racial generation gap peaked in 2016,” Pastor said. “The older generation is not seeing itself in the younger generation,” because it’s browner than the older generation. Pastor said this helps to explain many things, including the popularity of Donald Trump among a majority of white voters and their embrace of his message to empower wealthier, disproportionately white citizens with tax cuts at the expense of providing social services for the poor, who are disproportionately black and brown.
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 43 percent of children in the United States live in low-income families, if a poverty threshold more realistic than the federal government’s threshold is used. Also according to the center, more than half of black (61 percent) and Hispanic (59 percent) children live in low-income families, while just slightly more than one-quarter of white children (28 percent) live in low-income families. So what we are seeing is a trend of older, wealthier, white Americans turning away from investing publicly in younger, browner, poorer Americans – including, crucially, their education. Whatever one may feel about this trend morally, Pastor argues, it’s short-sighted and self-destructive in practical terms.
Pastor pointed to a 2018 report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago that widening inequality slows economic growth and makes the U.S. economy less resilient. He also pointed to a 2018 report by the International Monetary Fund – obviously, these are both conservative institutions – that “high levels of income inequality are associated with lower and less durable economic growth and greater financial instability.” To reduce income inequality and promote economic growth, the IMF recommended increasing “spending on health, education, and social protection and ensuring the progressivity of tax systems” – precisely the opposite of the Trump administration’s policies and the self-absorbed assumptions of his base.
It is the need for greater investment in public education that most deeply concerns us. We simply can’t accept a “racial generation gap” where a whiter, wealthier older generation fails to see itself in a browner, poorer younger generation and fails to see how crucial it is – for their own long-term well-being – to invest in the education of our children. Recall that 81 percent of the children in Saint Louis Public School are black. As Valerie Bell, board chair of the Saint Louis Public Schools Foundation, reminds us, “We need to invest in our future from a utilitarian standpoint. If you fail to invest in these kids now, then you’re going to pay for them somewhere else down the road – and have a lot less to show for it. They won’t have anything to contribute because we didn’t prepare them.”
This is why when people complain – as some do – that The St. Louis American does not cover violent crime, we insist that we cover it aggressively. And that is because we aggressively cover public education. Because in the end, the only solution to our crime problem is investing in public education as a means to empower low-income children, to prepare them, so they will have something positive to contribute.