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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.

Jennifer Hudson to Release Weight Loss Memoir

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Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

Singer-actress Jennifer Hudson is set to release a tell-all memoir chronicling her dramatic weight loss, according to USA Today.

The 29-year-old “American Idol” finalist, Grammy winning singer, and Academy Award winning actress shed nearly 80 pounds, reducing her dress size from 16 to 6 during the past year, with help from Weight Watchers.

“I have to throw my clothes up on the canopy of the bed because I don't have any space in the drawers or the closet,” Hudson said of the wardrobe revisions forced by the weight change during an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in February. “I've taken over the bedroom, the guest room, and now I'm throwing stuff on top of the canopy.”

Her book, which has yet to be titled, is scheduled for release early next year by Dutton Publishing, a Penguin Group USA imprint.

The memoir will not only detail Hudson’s journey to drop the pounds, but her experience “growing up in an environment where healthy living was not a priority,” according to a Dutton press release.

“Hudson wants to inspire anyone coping with weight issues, share some of her own best tips for losing and maintaining weight loss, fitting in exercise and keeping it fun and much more."

Study: Black Youth Not Politically Inclined

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By Wendell Hutson, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –

A majority of Black youth are not politically involved especially those from low-income households, according to a year-long study conducted by a group of high school students. A group of juniors from Kenwood Academy High School and undergraduate and graduate students from the University of Chicago (U of C), both on the South Side, collaborated on a research project to find out where Black youth stood politically during the era of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first Black president.

The U of C has had a longstanding relationship with Kenwood dating back to 2001 when it started the “Program of Academic Exploration for High School Students,” said Bill Harms, a spokesman for the U of C. And, this project titled “Black Youth & Politics in the Age of Obama” is a resumption of it. The study focused on youth between the ages 16 to 19 and looked at other factors, such as household income and religion. More than 100 students filled out surveys and were then interviewed about their responses, said Auriel Jamison, a Kenwood student.

“Those low-income youth who are involved in politics do so in a traditional way opposed to youth from upper-income households who participate in non-traditional ways,” Jamison said recently at a public presentation of the study’s results.

“We found that youth from low-income homes felt alienated from the government and Black youth overall felt like second-class citizens.”

An example of traditional activity is youth, who were eligible to vote, actually do vote. Non-traditional activity include students who protest in person or through a blog or Web site. Middle-class youth were more non-traditional when it came to politics, according to the study. Religion also is a factor. According to the study, low income students who participated in church activities were more inclined to be involved in politics compared to those who skipped church. Sonya Malunda, associate vice president for the Office of Civic Engagement at the U of C, said the project was structured as part of a course taught weekly at Kenwood.

“This is an ongoing relationship we have with Kenwood high school and one that we will build upon in years to come,” Malunda told the Crusader. “The university is excited to work with students and encourage this type of local partnership with schools and other institutions.” In 2009, roughly 30 Kenwood students agreed to participate in the study and to attend meetings at the U of C to discuss and analyze the pros and cons of youth involvement in politics.

And the goal, said Cathy Cohen, U of C. political science professor, who also worked with the students on the project, was to teach Kenwood students how to design and implement a research project.

“The expectation was that by teaching young people how to do research they could use those skills to voice their concerns, since youth are not typically provided the opportunity to have their voices included in important policy and political discussions, even those that impact them directly,” added Cohen.

Congressman Rangel Proposes Transition Assistance for Military Veterans

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By Gregory Dale, Special to the NNPA from the AFRO-American newspapers –

With unemployment among the nation’s veterans soaring, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) on May 24 proposed legislation to ensure military personnel a smooth transition back to civilian life after service.

The proposed measure, named the Mandatory Transition Assistance Act, would require the secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to make participation in Transition Assistance Programs mandatory for all military personnel prior to their discharge. Veterans would also be assigned a counselor and would be taught job acquisition skills including interview techniques, résumé construction, and salary negotiations.

“Our soldiers often come back from their duty with wounds, both visible and invisible,” Rangel told the AFRO in an emailed statement. “In these tough economic times, they rarely have time to heal and adjust to civilian life before worrying about how to survive at home. By completing the Transition Assistance Programs upon discharge, our servicemen and women, who have already proven their competence, can be fully prepared to join the civilian workforce.”

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 25 percent of veterans under 25-years-old are currently unemployed. Additionally, returning veterans who do find jobs earn an average of $5,736 less a year than civilians who had not served in the military. Returning soldiers with college degrees earn $9,526 less than their non-serving counterparts.

Also, more than 15 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan discharged war veterans were unemployed in January 2011, significantly exceeding the national jobless rate.

“America has lost over 6,000 lives fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan--five of these fallen heroes are from my Upper Manhattan District,” Rangel said in a statement. “We owe it to our brave men and women who risk their lives every day in defense of our great nation to provide them with the necessary tools to succeed when they come home.”

Black Women Attorneys Spurn Private Law Firms for Corporate Jobs

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By Nadra Kareem Nittle, Special to the NNPA from America’s Wire –

NEW YORK, NY - When Fania Washington had an opportunity to leave Winston & Strawn LLP, in 2004, to work for MTV Networks, she didn’t hesitate.

Washington had tired of handling cases that trickled down from the international law firm’s partners, and she sought more formidable challenges. She describes the firm as a “good firm with good people.” But, as an African-American and a vice president and employment counsel for MTV, Washington says, “I really feel like a partner in the company.”

A recent study by Corporate Counsel Women of Color (CCWC) discovered a growing trend in women of color leaving law firms to work as corporate counsels. Titled “The Perspectives of Women of Color Attorneys in Corporate Legal Departments,” the study surveyed more than 1,300 African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American female corporate attorneys.

A staggering 76.5 percent of women who participated in the study started their careers in law firms before leaving for corporations. Among reasons they cited for switching were feeling that their work was not valued, lack of good mentors, desire for more challenging work, and few opportunities for growth. Previous research cited by CCWC had found a 78 percent attrition rate for women of color at law firms.

“Women of color are going to law school . . . only to work for a law firm for a couple of years,” says Laurie N. Robinson, CCWC’s founder and CEO.

Robinson says data counter a misconception in the legal community that large numbers of minority women leave firms because they cannot handle the work. In reality, she says, it’s because women of color aren’t connecting with senior managers who can facilitate their desire for more challenging assignments, often leaving them struggling to obtain billable work.

Moreover, the survey found that these women had serious doubts as to whether their plight at law firms would improve, largely because so few women of color were partners who could serve as mentors. The majority of partners at law firms are white men, making it easier for white lawyers to bond with superiors.

“If you look at the breakdown of law firms, most of the partners are Caucasian,” Robinson says. “The challenge is how do we build a pipeline of people of color? Everybody at the law firms can’t work at the corporations.”

Dionne Greene-Punnette, U.S. markets counsel for MasterCard Worldwide, worked for law firms from 1996 to 2001 before going in-house. One firm, she says, had few African-Americans among its 700 employees. She considered herself a high-performing attorney who routinely traveled on business, worked 15-hour days and spent nights in her office to deal with a heavy workload. Yet, she says, she questioned how far she could advance because the firm had few minority attorneys in high-ranking positions.

“It’s harder to believe it’s attainable, if you don’t see it,” she says.

Like Washington, Greene-Punnette seized the opportunity to go in-house. At MasterCard Worldwide, she has more responsibilities. “I was a litigator when I was at the firm,” she says. “I wanted to transition where I could do more advising than troubleshooting, where I was part of the solution as opposed to cleaning up the problem.”

Veta T. Richardson, executive director of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, says that based on previous research and anecdotal examples she has encountered, the CCWC findings are no surprise. A primary reason that women of color likely prefer the corporate setting is because corporations have valued diversity longer, she says, noting that in the 1980s, diversity was a priority as corporations contemplated doing business in a global marketplace with a varied customer base.

Law firms didn’t begin to consider diversity issues seriously until the 1990s, Richardson says, adding, “Many law firms have not had by and large a dedicated person thinking about diversity issues until the middle of the last decade.”

Washington questions whether many law firms have a serious commitment to diversity. She says that most firms pay lip service to diversity and that many don’t explore how to retain women of color or improve recruiting them.

Washington says law firms don’t examine how to retain women of color or how to attract others. She also suggest that law schools could offer a more realistic look at life in law firms and connect students with women of color partners in firms.

Richardson says firms should provide financial incentives to supervisors who make diversity a priority and should include diversity responsiveness as part of performance reviews. She suggests that firms ask: “Did the person do a good job mentoring someone of a diverse background?”

The CCWC study also says law firms could retain more women of color by providing them greater access to managing partners and executive teams, opportunities to interact with highly valued clients and quality assignments to help them build expertise on subject matter and meet billable-hour requirements.

By working with the Association of Law Firm Diversity Professionals, Robinson says she hopes to encourage law firms to review the study.

The study also says law schools can help to reduce the high attrition rate by offering seminars on overcoming barriers for women of color at law firms. The study recommends creating networking opportunities in which students can interact with attorneys of diverse backgrounds.

“What I think is really interesting is that the women didn’t spend a lot of time speaking of their race and gender as barriers,” Robinson says. “They really focused on all of the things they do to overcome these barriers in the workplace—building up their level of expertise and working hard to be successful.”

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