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Closure of Minority Agencies Cause Concern in Pennsylvania

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By Christian Morrow, Special to the NNPA from The New Pittsburgh Courier –

The web page for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs still lists all its initiatives, and still pictures of Executive Director Sonya Toler.

But like many things on the Internet, it isn’t real. The office and Toler are both gone. She has returned to journalism, and the commission—along with those on Asian Affairs, Hispanic Affairs, and Women and Girls—has been consolidated into the Office of Public Liaison.

The liaison office is headed by Gov. Tom Corbett’s Deputy Chief of Staff Luke Bernstein, former staffer for both U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and an advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department under President George W. Bush.

Bernstein could not be reached for comment, but Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said the consolidation was one of many administration-wide cost cutting and streamlining measures implemented to address a $4.2 billion budget deficit.

“The decision to consolidate operations was based on our analysis, which found that the vast majority of the commission’s expenditures were directed to overhead costs—not actual constituent service,” he said. “In our extensive review, we found that personnel and administrative expenditures accounted for more than 90 percent of the (FY 2010-2011) budget for the Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs.” Toler, in Philadelphia, said she believes the consolidations are counterproductive.

“It’s not a positive consolidation in that there is a problem with access to state government in general that is magnified with minority constituencies,” she said. “It is not something that can easily be done by someone who doesn’t understand your community.”

In addition to advising the governor on policies affecting African-Americans, the commission was largely responsible for making sure applicable services were delivered to individuals, nonprofits, and businesses. In some cases, Toler said, that meant being a fundraiser.

“In 2008 we held a Minority Business Summit in Harrisburg to provide information for African-American entrepreneurs. I had to raise $60,000 to do that,” she said. “One of the speakers was Jerome Shabazz from Philadelphia, who educated attendees on how he secured two ‘Growing Greener’ grants.”

Toler added, however, that much of what the commission’s work did, did not require much money. In most cases it was about adjusting policy and regulations.

“A man who passed the state Real Estate Broker’s test, but was denied because of his educational background,” she said. “He didn’t have a four-year real estate degree, he had an MBA focused on real estate, from the University of Pennsylvania. A focused graduate degree we said should qualify, and they changed the rule. That was a policy thing that didn’t cost a dime.”

African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania President and CEO Doris Carson Williams said she is willing to wait and see whether or not the consolidation actually means the administration does not find the commission’s former task significant.

“The commission did advocacy within the administration. It would appear that outreach to strengthen relations with the African-American community is now on the back burner,” she said.

As for closing the commissions as a cost cutting measure, most were operating on such shoestring budgets that they only had an executive director. Thanks to what she called her “fiscal restraint,” Toler was able to keep her Deputy Director Jennifer Kyung on board.

Black Political Empowerment Project Director Tim Stevens said he does not see how the Office of Public Liaison could have the focus that Toler did.

“It’s unfortunate, especially for African-Americans in Pittsburgh who, according to one report, have the highest unemployment in the nation,” he said. “It’s not the time to shut that commission down.”

Harley said the commission was not “shut down.” He said new staffing for the Liaison Office would depend on how the final budget authorization turns out. The final budget should be in place July 1st. Currently there is no staffing.

“We regard all callers’ concerns as equally important, regardless of the issue on which they are calling,” he said. “Each and every inquiry is important to us and we strive to handle them as expeditiously as possible. We are confident that the Office of Public Liaison will be able to meet the needs of the citizens we serve.”

South Africa Needs Jobs for Six Million, Labor Leader Says

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Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

Six million South Africans want to work but can't find jobs. Most of them are young Black women without education and skills, said Zwelinzima Vavi, general secretary of the major labor group Cosatu, speaking at the University of Johannesburg.

"They face a lifetime of poverty. This is what I have called a ticking bomb," Vavi said. Thousands of South Africans, he added, are "living in slum shacks, collecting water from taps in the street, even having to use bucket toilets".

A radical program was needed, he said, to get young people working. Such a program was the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, an anti-poverty initiative in India, which gives every rural household the right to 100 days of employment (manual labor) a year at a minimum wage.

With more than 55-million participants, it is one of the largest jobs program in history and has provided more than two billion person-days of work, 48% of which have gone to women.

"South Africa has been slower off the block. Yes, there have been similar schemes ... but much more needs to be done to give our young people hope for a better future," the labor leader declared.

Study Finds More Than Two Million 'Phantom Voters' on Zimbabwe's Electoral Rolls

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By Fungai Maboreke, Special to the NNPA from the Global Information Network –

The South African Institute of Race Relations, in a new report, claims to have found some 2.6 million “phantom” voters on Zimbabwe’s voter rolls. The country has approximately 5.6 million registered voters out of a population of 12 million.

Researcher Richard Johnson said he also found 16,800 people with the same birthday - Jan. 1, 1901, about 40,000 "voters" over 100 years of age and some who were dead. Some 230 voters were below the voting age of 18. The report can be read in full on the Institute’s website.

President Robert Mugabe has called for elections to be held this year while the leader of the opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, has threatened a boycott.

Elections in 2008 were marred by violence and some MDC supporters were either attacked or detained without charge while others were killed. Widespread fraud was reported at the polls.

Wise Investments: Financial Realities Face Black Baby Boomers

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By Nayita Wilson, Special to the NNPA from The Louisiana Weekly/New America Media –

NEW ORLEANS—Is retirement a boom or bust proposition for African American baby boomers?

As the 78 million boomers—more than 9 million of them Black--continue to make a gradual, but highly visible exit from the workforce, data show that pre-retirement factors, such as income and planning, are key determinants of how well off they will remain financially in their later years.

Boomer and retiree Gilda Austin, of Las Vegas, Nevada, launched her retirement savings plan the day she began her education career by taking advantage of the pension plan made available to her by the Clark County Unified School District.

“As an educator, you don’t make a lot of money, especially when you’re starting out,” said Austin, who retired from the school district as an administrator in 2008. She also returned to work, this time as a teacher, to earn more before retiring for good in 2010.

“I was vested in the state, so my pension is nice,” said Austin, who left work with about 80 percent of her pre-retirement income. And, she expects her retirement income to surpass her former salary in a few years because Nevada laws guarantee cost of living raises.

How Much Is Enough for Retirement?

Financial planners typically say retirees will need replacement income of 70-80 percent to continue living as well as they did prior to exiting the workforce. Social Security replaces only about 40 percent of workplace earnings on average. Also, public employees in many states are not eligible for Social Security and must rely entirely on their employment pensions, investments, and savings.

Today, of course, educators like Austin and other public service employees are under new pressures, as many states aim to reduce their budget deficits partly by requiring workers to contribute more to their healthcare and pension funds.

Whether in public or private jobs, though, Austin encourages others to take advantage of employee incentives and remain in good jobs as long as possible. For retirement, says a recent AARP report, Black baby boomers are less likely than others to contribute to a pension plan, when one is available. (Employer-based pensions are now offered to about one in three U.S. workers.)

“If you are relying on Social Security, invest and find opportunities to make your money grow,” Austin said. “You have to set out something— even if it’s just $10 a month. You have to save something.”

For African Americans and other ethnic groups with low savings rates and a greater portion of individuals in low paying or government jobs, working longer or re-entering the workforce after initial retirement may become the norm, say experts in aging.

Data on seniors’ incomes analyzed in the federal report, “Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well Being,” reveal a gaping disparity between the net worth of Black and white households for those ages 65 and older. For instance, between 1984 and 2007, the median net worth of older whites more than doubled to $280,000; whereas, the median net worth of Blacks inched up only slightly from $29,700 to $46,000.

Furthermore, a 2010 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., showed that among African Americans ages 58 or older continuing to work more than four in 10 have physically demanding jobs and one in three work in difficult conditions.

Because African Americans face difficulty in the labor market throughout their working lives, says a recent AARP report, “The disadvantages are just as serious for workers age 50 and older as for their younger counterparts.”

The study, 50-Plus African American Workers, cites federal labor figures for 2008 (before the recession took effect and the most recent year with available statistics) showing that while two-in-three white or Latino men continue working, significantly fewer Black males (56 percent) were on the job. The employment levels were about half for Black, white and Hispanic women, but the report, prepared for AARP by the Urban Institute, anticipates more will keep working in light of the Great Recession and growing financial needs.

Blacks Earn Less

Further, says the AARP report, Blacks tend to earn less. The median annual income of adults ages 50 to 61 was $44,000 for Blacks, $50,000 for Hispanics, and $72,300 for whites. One reason for this income disparity is that African Americans have lower marriage rates than Latinos or whites, and married couples tend to have more income.

The study also shows that although older Black workers made important income gains in the 1980s and ’90s, their average incomes dropped by 12 percent from 1999-2008, compared with three percent reductions for Hispanics, and five percent for whites.

The AARP report’s lead author, Richard W. Johnson of the Urban Institute, noted that boomers also face other retirement challenges.

For instance, reduced wage growth because of the Great Recession will probably lower future income by five percent, or about $2,500 on average annually. Lower earnings, besides affecting personal pensions and savings, will translate into diminished Social Security retirement benefits, he said.

As it is, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, seven in 10 African American elders currently rely on Social Security for at least half their income, compared to less than two-thirds of all beneficiaries. And Social Security provides almost half of Black seniors 90 percent or more of their incomes.

Even though some Blacks are earning more money, too few are executing strategies to help build wealth, such as saving, eliminating debt, increasing income streams, creating a financial plan, and building an estate for the next generation, said Horace Sinclair, a personal financial coach working with many African American families in Louisiana and Texas.

“By and far, we are lagging behind as a people because we are not putting enough money aside,” Sinclair said.

The reality becomes most apparent at death when some Black families scramble to find funds to cover funeral costs.

In other populations, buying [life] insurance is a way to build wealth for the next generation. In the event that something happens, insurance protects that goal and provides heirs with money to fulfill the goal of the benefactor,” Sinclair said. Such goals can include paying off a mortgage, paying for college or creating a stream of income for beneficiaries. In the Black community, he observed, “They sell us burial polices. They offer enough policies to bury the person, and that’s it.”

Sinclair urges African Americans worried about their retirement future to read business articles, attend financial seminars, find a financial mentor, and establish a plan that “will attract a lot of income, assets, and wealth.”

Potential Solutions

The Urban Institute’s Johnson, while allowing that individuals with lower earnings inherently have slimmer resources for retirement, stressed, “because Social Security doesn’t allow for a comfortable retirement on its own, people really need to supplement it with their own savings, but that requires a certain level of financial education.”

One approach, he said, is for employers to offer workers a program that automatically signs them up for a retirement plan to which both employers and employees contribute. Rather than agree to sign up, as mostly happens today, individuals not wishing to participate would have to opt out. Experiments with such programs have been very successful in increasing employee participation in retirement plans.

“We shouldn’t just let people make their own decisions,” Johnson said.

“It’s important that workers have clear guidance about how much they should save for investments and where they should invest.”

Sinclair believes a “massive movement” is needed to change the difficult prospects ahead for many Black retirees. “The government is not going to be able to do it because they have their hands tied with other priorities,” he added.

“It’s not hopeless,” Sinclair went on. “There are people who are fighting and advocating for our people to make it. If you are searching for something, you will find it. If you prepare yourself for change, God is already preparing someone to facilitate what you are preparing for.”

This article is adapted from a feature in the Louisiana Weekly that Nayita Wilson wrote under the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America and New America Media.

Civil Rights Advocates, Lenders Unite to Preserve the American Dream

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By Charlene Crowell, NNPA Columnist –

Last year, millions of Americans who were either in or at-risk of foreclosure became the impetus for a hard-fought consumer victory. The historic Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is the most significant financial reform that Congress has passed in many years. Now, as regulators hammer out specific implementation of the bill, consumer and civil rights advocates are again fighting for the hopes of many low and moderate income families to fulfill their own American Dream of homeownership.

A key issue is a proposed down payment requirement on mortgages. Several federal financial regulators are calling for mandatory minimum down payments of 10-20 percent of a home purchase price and also barring borrowers who would be spending more than 28 percent of their income on their mortgage. Regulators claim these rules are necessary to produce quality loans. But they overlook the fact that the Dodd-Frank bill already includes safeguards to prevent a recurrence of reckless lending. In fact, the proposed rules would impose arbitrary and unnecessary barriers to buying a home for creditworthy families, especially those in lower-wealth communities of color.

A new analysis by the Center for Responsible Lending reveals that if the government were to require a 10 percent down payment, it would take the average consumer 13 years to save the $25,995 required to purchase a median priced home of $173,300. And this estimate assumes a prospective homebuyer would devote all his/her savings to accumulating down payment while saving nothing for retirement, college or an emergency funding during this time.

When CRL examined the impact to communities of color, the figures were even more troubling. As both median Black and Latino-American earnings are less than those of the general population, the proposal to mandate higher home down payments would pose more severe challenges. Consumers of color planning to transition from renters to homeowners will face an almost insurmountable financial challenge, despite the continued drop in home prices.

Among renters of color, only 25 percent have more than $2,000 in cash assets. By comparison, white families have an average of $5,000 in cash savings. While the nation’s median income is $49,777, the median gross income for African-American households is only $32,500.

If the proposed federal rules go into effect, it would take the average African-American household 19 years before amassing enough cash for a 10 percent down payment and closing costs; average Latino families would need 15 years.

This lengthy savings time poses a barrier that simply is not necessary for credit-worthy families. For every year that these same families continue to dedicate spending to rent that denies them any financial benefit, they could be building wealth instead through homeownership.

Although median income dropped for all Americans from 2000 to 2009, the sharpest drops in earnings occurred in communities of color. Real median income for Latinos dropped from more than $41,000 down to $38,000. For African-Americans, the decline was roughly $37,000 down to $32,500. During these same years, the nation’s poverty rate rose. Today, an estimated one in four African-Americans and Latinos live in poverty.

If this nation allows policies to keep mortgages out of reach for qualified families, full economic recovery will remain out of reach for everyone. The mortgage market must expand ownership opportunities to spur sustainable economic growth.

The opportunity to reverse the ill-advised down payment requirements has a short opportunity to further mobilize opposition. The comment period for these proposed rules ends on August 1. Between now and this key date, more citizens and organizations should formally express their own opposition.

When we consider our nation’s history – particularly the post-World War II economy -- much of the expansion of the nation’s middle class was fueled by returning veterans who took advantage of federal home buying programs. In many cases, these homes were modest and newly-constructed tract homes that came to characterize suburbia.

Just as it took federal policy to successfully welcome home a nation’s service men and women, it will take a renewed and balanced federal effort to ensure the American Dream continues for this and future generations.

Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s communications manager for state policy and outreach. She can be reached at: Charlene.crowell@responsiblelending.org.

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