#BHEARD Town Hall: Economic Inequality

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By Akosua K. Albritton

Photo courtesy of BRIC

The #BHEARD Town Hall is the space where Brooklyn residents of all ages, local leaders, social scientists, advocates and the elected convene to discuss crucial issues of our time. As the name implies, it is a space for Brooklyn residents to exercise their agency by airing concerns, questions and offering ideas to solve social problems of our time. These town halls are free to the public and are held in BRIC Arts Media House’s ballroom, located at 647 Fulton Street. Moderator Brian Vines is BRIC-TV’s Senior Correspondent and Managing Editor.

The beauty of these events is that each town hall presents five professionals, coming from different institutions, to the public who would not otherwise know about them. Therefore, the people have the opportunity to build their personal contact list. Getting acquainted with these people is thought-provoking and empowering.

BRIC-TV, Brooklyn’s nonprofit cable station, presented the latest live #BHEARD Town Hall after a hiatus of five months on March 1, 2019 and uploaded it to BRIC-TV’s YouTube Channel on March 4, 2019.  Entitled “The Widening Gap: Economic Inequality in NYC,” it opened with a barrage of alarming statistics: “Brooklyn ranks #1 with children living in poverty,” “15% of Brooklyn student loan borrowers are late on their payments,” and “over 30% of renters spend over half their income on rent.” Be that as it may, Brooklynites continued to perpetrate a fraud by presenting themselves in the latest fashions, jewelry and wigs. Teen girls flash long polished false nails while holding cell phones and the debt keeps rising.

The subject was the debt crisis stemming from student loans, high housing costs and stagnant wages and salaries for too many job categories. People are hiding their income from others out of shame. Many people believe their hard work and determination should solve their problems.  Marxist sociologists would call this situation “false consciousness.” The problem is not stemming from not knowing what to do or not putting in enough effort. Rather, it is the economic system and those that run that system.

The six people invited to shed light on this situation included Natalia Abrams, Executive Director of Student Crisis; Dr. Guillermina Jasso, Professor of Sociology, Silver Professor of Arts and Sciences, New York University; Dr. L. Toni Lows, Founder and President of Liberation Health Strategies and former Chair of SEIU Health Care; Helaire Olen, Author and Journalist at the Washington Post, Personal Finance; Dr. Jonas Shaende, Chief Economist at the Fiscal Policy Institute; and J. Phillip Thompson, NYC Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives.

Dr. Guillermina Jasso, in wise owl form, offered a series of suggestions to affect our thinking and behavior rather than give socioeconomic facts and figures based on the logic model, “If you do X, then equality will be reduced.”

The more voters the better. Secret ballots are very important. Too often, how we spend enriches the wealthy. Try not to assess ourselves by our net worth, but by other human qualities. There is an old idea that if you don’t value the things the powerful value, then they lose their value. Be mindful about where and what we spend money on.

One female audience member posed a question about the Universal Basic Income (UBI). UBI is a regular allotment that would be given to every resident which would keep households above the poverty level. The woman and Brian Vines acknowledged that people such as Dr. Martin L. King, Richard Nixon and Elon Musk have been in favor of it. To put things into perspective, Dr. Jonas Shaende asked, “What kind of problems are we trying to solve?” If some jobs are becoming obsolescent, are there other jobs that require manpower that people can transition to? It is one of the things we can do that involves spending money on the safety net. “What does capitalism look like in 20 years with everyone having a basic income?”

  1. Phillip Thompson forwarded the importance of learning and understanding the economy. “We are actually a rich country. There is the scarcity myth that underlies our economy; however, household wealth was over $1 trillion in 2018. Poverty is actually a construction because we decided not to share, [although] politicians are saying we don’t have. The economy is actually a social relationship about how we decide how we take care of ourselves. For example, slavery is a human relationship.

Another telling remark from Thompson was, “Every time working people decide to come together, wealthy people find racist people like Donald Trump. Race is the divide. The 14th Amendment is now being used to protect corporations. The US Supreme Court says corporations are legal entities with rights.”

Natalia Abrams concurred by saying, “As soon as we come together like the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the 1% comes in to shut us down. Once white people are hit with debt and income insufficiency, then these things are problems wanting to be solved. If it could be contained within the communities of color, it is not a crisis. It is a state of being.”

Turning to student debt, Abrams remarked, “The college students don’t realize the debt they have incurred. They have been enjoying the party while in school. It is not until they have graduated and away from campus that the reality and weight of the debt falls upon them as they are waking up and seeing their $30, $40 and $100,000 student loan debt.”

Dr. Toni Lewis expounded on pay equity. After listening to Brian Vines explain that a white woman earns 86% of what a man earns, a Black woman earns 60% of it, and Latino and indigenous women earn 40% of it, Lewis called for more town halls and meetings with elected officials for free. She stated, “There is money here. It is not scarce. We have to access the pots of money that we have paid into. Brilliance must be valued regardless of color. What is holding us back is the stigma of debt. Rather, we need to understand the history of our economy.”   

It is Jonas Shaende’s position that, “The most effective indicator of one’s life circumstances is one’s parents’ income.” This is because the family’s income and investments give access to many resources, schools, programs and people of means. Shaende went on to assess the impact of Specialized High Schools. “It is Schools Chancellor Richard Corranza with whom I concur that we shouldn’t be rationing our education. All of our kids are capable. We need to create opportunity for all of our children.”

Helaire Olen, Washington Post columnist who writes about personal finances, contended people must push back on the “pulling up from your boot straps” ideation. Rather, Americans ought to own their debts and successes. There are systemic reasons for poverty. For example, it is not until recently that domestic workers got Social Security. Phillip Thompson concurred. He said, “We have to fight for domestic workers to get adequately paid. We have to fight for women.”