House Democrats are set to begin their first "100 legislative hours" today. A new study has found their new agenda does little to address the economic divide between whites and people of color. We speak with the executive director of United for a Fair Economy. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Newly in charge House Democrats are set to begin their first "100 legislative hours" today. They have promised to pass a series of bills that they say amounts to, quote, "a new direction for America." The Democratic agenda includes increasing the minimum wage, cutting the interest rate on student loans, reducing the price of prescription drugs and ending some subsidies to big oil companies.
But a new study has found this agenda does little to address the economic divide in this country between whites and people of color, and that the impact of the legislation will not change the economic inequities between the races. The report is called "State of the Dream 2007: Voting Blue, Staying in the Red," and it’s being released today by United for a Fair Economy.
Meizhu Lui joins us from Boston, executive director of United for a Fair Economy, co-author of the report. Welcome to Democracy Now!
MEIZHU LUI: Thanks so much.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, this "100 hours of legislation" has been much touted, of course, by the new Democrats, the new Democratic leadership. Can you talk about the issues that you analyzed and what it means for people in this country?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, we were also thinking that it is almost Martin Luther King’s birthday and that the Democratic Party was the party of African Americans since the civil rights movement. In fact, they have been the most loyal voters for the Democrats since 1968, voting rarely below 90 percent for African Americans. So if you have had friends that stuck with you through thick and thin, you’d think that you would want to do something for them when you had an opportunity. We find that this 100-hour agenda really does not do anything to close the racial economic gap, which has grown wider over the last number of years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk specifically. Let’s start, for example, with the minimum wage.
MEIZHU LUI: Yes. The minimum wage was last raised in 1997, and we also found that Congress raised its own wages eight times during that same period of time. But even if you look at that minimum wage raise to $7.25 an hour in 2009, that will not even bring people up to the level of poverty. In fact, we found that if you increase the minimum wage by 70 cents for every year, it would take up to the year 2013 to even reach the poverty level.
Now, people of color are disproportionately minimum-wage earners. However, they are also twice as likely — African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites. So if the Democrats of this new administration doesn’t do something about unemployment — it’s been a long time since we had a commitment to full employment — we’re going to still see people living under poverty, and that will not stop the declining of folks with more middle-class jobs. And, as you know, the layoffs in auto and other manufacturing sectors have hit African Americans particularly hard.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of college loans, what do you think has to be done there?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, cutting the interest rate is really not going to help too much. The cost of college tuition has risen astronomically. Even for public colleges the tuition rates have gone up by 51 percent. So we really feel like the loans don’t do that much to help people who don’t have the capability to pay these higher tuition rates to get through college. So we’ve seen declining enrollments. We’ve seen declining graduation rates. Blacks now graduate at only 42 percent. It’s 62 percent for whites, and that has a lot to do with the cost of higher education these days.
In 1975, the US government gave 77 percent of its dollars in scholarships and only 20 percent in loans. Now, that is reversed, so that 70 percent is in loans. Certainly, our government could give scholarships again. That would certainly help for those who don’t have the capability. African Americans have only 15 cents in terms of wealth and assets to the white person’s dollar of assets, so clearly their families are not as able to help their children get that college education that is so necessary today to get a job with a slightly higher income.
AMY GOODMAN: Meizhu Lui is executive director of United for a Fair Economy, that’s come out with this report that’s just being released today that says the legislation being passed in this first 100 hours is not going to decrease the divide between people of color and whites. What about Medicare?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, with the drug proposal that they have, it would allow the government to negotiate better rates with pharmaceuticals, and we’re happy that they’re going to take on the pharmaceuticals. Don’t get us wrong; this is a good thing. However, in terms of who it would help, right now very low-income seniors, and that is disproportionately people of color, already have subsidized drugs. In fact, under Medicaid, they really had it much easier in terms of just being able to present your Medicaid card and to get the drugs that you need. The lower drug prices that can be negotiated now will help more middle-income seniors, and that group is disproportionately white. So again, it’s not a bad thing, but it doesn’t do anything to close the racial gap.
AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about reducing oil subsidies. How does that play in here?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, once again, we’re very happy that they want to reduce oil subsidies to the big oil companies. So taking on these giant corporations both in pharmaceutical and oil is certainly a good thing, but in terms of who will it benefit, again, this proposal will not benefit people of color, so that if you look at the sort of greater investment in the ethanol industry in the Midwest, that’s not exactly the part of the country where we have the most people of color living, so that an increase of jobs will not really help them that much. In terms of farmers, black farmers in the South are losing land at an alarming rate. This is not going to help them, either.
So some of the things that government could do, because low-income people are going to be cold this winter if it ever gets colder, which I think it will, but fuel assistance is something that is still very necessary. The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, for instance, only served five million people, while 32 million were eligible. We could increase that funding again. And public transportation certainly is a way to reduce energy. And last year, our "State of the Dream" report showed that people of color own cars at a much lower rate than whites. Public transportation is very necessary for them to be able to get to jobs, as well as lowering our country’s energy needs.
AMY GOODMAN: Meizhu Lui, you talk about the ethanol industry, alternative energy sources, and how that, too, does not serve African Americans and people of color?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, that’s right, because the biofuel technology and those jobs are not going to — again, they’re more located in the Midwest. And some of the new jobs in science and engineering, unfortunately, are not — occupations are not degrees that African Americans and Latinos are getting in large numbers. It’s only like 6.2 percent African Americans have a graduate degree, only 2.2 percent Latinos are getting degrees, in those fields.
So, really, we have to look, as we did, at the end of the '60s at very targeted programs to close the gap. I think the Democrats right now might be thinking that simply by having a allegedly color-blind proposal, that it's going to help people of color more, but that’s not true. We have seen from our history that you have to be very intentional about closing the wealth gap. And we hope that in hour 101 and beyond, the Democrats will get back to that agenda that the Democratic leaders in the 1960s and early '70s had put a lot on the line to take risks, to spend money, to think very specifically about how do we close the race gap. And in this time right before Martin Luther King's birthday, we think it would only be appropriate for them to think about how can they help their most loyal supporters over all these years.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to this latest study that’s determined the biggest beneficiaries of President Bush’s tax cuts have been families earning more than $1 million. They got something like a $58,000 tax cut for every family that earned more than $1 million, certainly does not compare to middle-income and lower-income families.
MEIZHU LUI: No, we see an increasing gap. And really, United for a Fair Economy has been working hard to stop the permanent repeal of the estate tax, which would give even more money to those at the very, very top. And certainly, we have seen that trickle-down does not work. But we have also seen from our country’s history that investing in the base does work. So if you think about the GI bill, as we’ve been talking about education, paying the college tuition of all of those GIs, five million mostly white GIs benefited from that program. And, in fact, Truman said in 1947 that we could extend public education to 14 years instead of 12. That’s something that we could be looking at again today.
AMY GOODMAN: Overall, Meizhu Lui, your assessment of this first 100 hours of legislation?
MEIZHU LUI: Well, I think that it’s been clear that the Democrats have been trying to pick the low hanging fruit, as they say, and that certainly these are positive things. However, on the scale of things, we feel like they are really tiny improvements and that we need to see much more, and we would feel much better if they had talked not just about these 100 hours, but what were they going to do — is this like a small down payment on what’s going to happen in the coming year, particularly in terms of investing to close the race gap.
AMY GOODMAN: Meizhu Lui is the co-author of the report, "[State of the Dream 2007: Voting Blue, Staying in the Red]," from United for a Fair Economy. Thank you very much for being with us. She joins us from Boston.
MEIZHU LUI: Thank you.