We as a nation are at a critical juncture–we are working to re-shape America’s role in the 21st century global economy, and to create the jobs and the infrastructure that will help us create equal opportunities for success for all Americans. At the same time, we are living in a moment where our traditional notions of race and how we talk about it are changing. One question keeps coming up: with an African-American President leading our country, do we still need to think about and create solutions for historic barriers to opportunity? The answer? Absolutely.

As we reflect on our first year under Team Obama, and on the one-year anniversary of the historic American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, also known as the stimulus, our goals must be clear: we need to ensure that all Americans have access to the education, training, and jobs they need to succeed; and we must make every effort to bring opportunity to communities that were already hurting before the economic crisis. Historically, the groups who’ve been hurting the most are communities of color and women. Unfortunately, we’ve seen time and time again that access to full and equal opportunity is very much a mixed reality, and these groups are being left behind in ways that hard work and personal achievement alone cannot address.
For those who are fortunate enough to have jobs, there is a remarkable disparity in wages. At the end of 2008, African Americans were only earning about 76 percent of white income, and Latinos were earning only about 72 percent as much, while women made about 77 percent of men’s income. Let’s break it down even more for women of color: while white women made about 83 percent of male income, African American women made about 67 percent of male income, and Latinas made about 57 percent of male income. Interestingly enough, Asian women came the closest to filling the gap, making about 93 percent of male income.

The disparities were just as strong for people in the most dire circumstances: at the end of 2008, as we were heading deep into the recession, women had a poverty rate of 14 percent, meaning they were 20 percent more likely to be living in poverty than men, who had a poverty rate of 12 percent. And African Americans were almost three times (287.2 percent) as likely as whites to live in poverty.

While the efforts of the past year have been a good start to getting our economy back on track, the Obama Administration and Congress need to use this moment as a time for innovative ideas, and promoting greater opportunity for all, while also expanding it for those who’ve been held back historically, has to become an important and explicit consideration in future public investments and programs.

Using a tool that evaluates public spending–what we call an Opportunity Impact Statement–at all levels of government can ensure that government look at where investment is needed most before actually spending funds, whether it’s for job creation, building out transportation to jobs, or schools. This would ensure that all Americans have access to the building blocks of opportunity.

Now is the right time to take stock of how far we’ve come as a country, and acknowledge our growth and understanding when it comes to issues of race and gender, but it isn’t time to stop taking proactive steps to diminish existing inequalities. In fact, this is the right time for bold leadership from all of us–we need to demand good schools in all of our communities, and strong training programs that prepare every single one of us for the global economy.

This post first appeared as part of the Transforming Race Conference over at race-talk.org.

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