Keeping Justice in Mind as We Talk Asset-Building

Posted by Miriam Axel-Lute on September 23, 2014

I attended my first ever Assets Learning Conference, put on by CFED last week, and I have to say it was mighty impressive.

And I was particularly pleased to see that economic justice and things like reforming the tax code to be less regressive and reward savings by low- and middle-income Americans, rather than mostly the already wealthy, were being given an important place next to what feels like the aset-building movement's bread and butter discussions of savings programs and financial education.

Lisa Hasagawa, from National CAPACD, discussed the ongoing role of structural racism in the wealth gap in her remarks at the opening panel. "Counseling alone won't fix the asset gap," she said, encouraging the joining of the asset-building movement with the movements to increase the minimum wage, for immigration reform, and civil rights.

Michael Sherradan of the Center for Social Development at Washington University noted that, as one small example of how our tax code is biased toward the rich, the top 1 percent of earners have millions in 401k retirement plans, and still getting tax benefits for it, while 50 percent of the country doesn't even have a 401k. "There is no possible way this is good governance," he said.

Andrea Levere, CFED's director, announced that CFED would be introducing a campaign to make the tax code support "asset building by the asset-poor majority," by turning our upside down policy right side up.

I was really happy to see this talk of structural issues being explicitly included, because I think even though most folks in the asset-building world know this context, it's easy not to talk about it much when you are focusing on programs that are designed to overcome the effects of that injustice in individual lives. 

As far as I can tell, financial counselors and coaches rarely couch their work in terms of the structural forces of injustice that are acting on thelr clients' lives and making it harder for them to get ahead, except perhaps as traps that savvy consumers can learn to avoid. I think this is partly out of fear of disempowering their clients, or giving them excuses, which feels counter-productive. That's understandable.

But both have to exist side by side—the programs that are trying to concretely address the wealth gaps by empowering people to reduce debt, increase savings, and acquire other more or less tangible assets from homeownership to higher education, a business, or citizenship—and the discussions about how to address inequality, regressive tax codes, discriminatory lending, and all the punitive policies and products that make being poor more expensive.

Without the latter, I think we run the risk of seeming to imply that the fault lies with individuals, and all that's needed at address asset inequality are some better-designed bootstraps.

I look forward to hearing more as CFED blends these two threads together.

(Photo by CFED.)

About the author more »

Miriam Axel-Lute is editor of Shelterforce and associate director of the National Housing Institute. Her email is miriam at nhi dot org.

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