Economist Dr. Julianne Malveaux

Economist and Bennett College president discusses her new book, Surviving and Thriving, and explains the difference between being broke and being poor.

As Bennett College president, Dr. Julianne Malveaux helps shape the opinions of hundreds of young women. An economist, author, syndicated columnist and commentator, her academic work is included in numerous anthologies, and she's researched and taught at several prestigious U.S. universities. She's also produced and hosted public affairs radio and TV programs and designed issue-based seminars for Fortune 500 companies. Malveaux earned her Ph.D. in economics from MIT and contributes her expertise to a number of civic, civil rights and women's organizations.


Tavis: Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist, author and columnist who also serves as the president of Bennett College for women in Greensboro, North Carolina. She’s also the author of the new text, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.” Dr. Malveaux, good to have you back on this program.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux: It’s great to be here, Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: “Surviving and Thriving.” Black folk may very well be surviving these days. They are not thriving. I just saw the numbers the other day. We’ve been saying for some time now that this is the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Malveaux: Absolutely.

Tavis: But for Black folk in particular, Black folk, we are now at Depression-era levels. So we’re surviving, but we’re not thriving.

Malveaux: A few of us are thriving. But let’s talk about the surviving part, Tavis. This is a horrible, horrible recession for us. The official numbers are fiction – like reading a mystery book. What do you mean, 16 percent? That’s one in six. It’s really something like one in four African Americans who are out of work. For African American men, half. In major inner cities, half of the brothers are simply not working.

How can you have a community with a base of half of the men not working? I would have to say if it were anyplace else in America, if it were Appalachia, if it were California and there was a piece of data that said half of the men are not working, don’t you think public policy would perhaps have targeted those men?

It hasn’t done that. That’s the biggest problem, is that public policy has ignored African American people. But one of the reasons I wrote the book, Tavis, is no matter how rough things are for our people, we do survive and thrive. If enslaved people could purchase themselves, could purchase themselves, then people today can think of entrepreneurial things to do.

I’m concerned about the apathy in our community, about the folks who just take it lying down, who, “I’m poor, I’m broke.” Well, broke and poor are two different things. Broke is a state of pocketbook. Poor is a state of mind.

Tavis: But when you look at these unemployment numbers, to your point earlier, it’s not just Black folk who are suffering. These numbers across the board suggest there’s a whole lot more white folk in poverty, whole lot more white folk unemployed, by the sheer numbers, than there are Black folk.

So if white folk can’t pull themselves up in this recession, is it really that Black folk are not being creative enough?

Malveaux: Well, I’m not blaming us at all, but I want to inspire us.

Tavis: Right.

Malveaux: Surviving and thriving is about inspiring us, about looking at those folks who are able to put pennies together, like Maggie Lena Walker, Penny Savings Bank. Sister had a second grade education and she started a bank. Second grade education, “Just put those pennies together and they’ll grow.”

No, this recession has hurt Middle America, Black America, any America except for the top.

Tavis, in I want to say about 1980, the top 10 percent of the population – no, the top 1 percent of the population, had something like 2.5 percent of the income. The top 1 percent, 2.5 percent. Disproportionate, but.

Now, the top 1 percent has 10 percent of the income, so in roughly a two decade period, three decade period, their share has grown fourfold. What that means is that at the bottom, the share has dropped off.

So the richest people have gotten much richer, but those who are impoverished have remained impoverished, and many, many times you see people who are doing those things we did in the Depression. Doubling and tripling up, so Mom and them now have three sets of folks, three sets of families living with them.

It’s a very dire situation, even with, as you say, the majority community. Young people graduating from college, a third of them don’t have anywhere to go in terms of employment. No jobs, no graduate school. They’re just hanging out there, moving back home.

A young woman wrote a book, “Generation Debt.” Talked about how so many young people coming out of college, average young person, with about $20,000 worth of student loans. So we’re starting them out shackled before they even begin.

Tavis: I’ve discussed this issue many times, and this is not the first time or the last time that I will raise this. But while African Americans are catching more hell than anybody else in this economy, there is an African American who sits in the Oval Office who has had the same three things to say consistently about Black unemployment when he’s been asked about it, on the record; indeed, at White House press conferences.

In no particular order, number one, “I am not just the president of Black America, I’m the president of all of America,” has said this president any number of times, so I can’t have a targeted approach at Black unemployment. I’m the president of all of America, number one.

Secondly, he has said that, “A rising tide -” these are his words; same thing Ronald Reagan said in that recession, that a “Rising tide will lift all boats.” Thirdly, he has said that his answer to Black unemployment was the stimulus, and yet we know now out of the Courant Institute at Ohio State University that the stimulus money never trickled down to Black folk, Black businesses, or anybody else.

Malveaux: Absolutely.

Tavis: Those are the three responses we’ve gotten from this president. Here’s the point. He is now obviously in reelection mode. He has to have a significant turnout in his own base, his own community to stand any chance of being reelected. Yet these are the folk catching the most hell. What’s going to happen?

Malveaux: Well, when he says, “A rising tide lifts all boats,” Tavis, I say, “In that boat, some people are riding and some people are rowing.” So even on that boat, we’re not in the same position. There are some people chilling, it’s a yacht for them, and for other people it’s a little put-put.

So the rhetoric, I understand the difficult position that this president seems to find himself in. He has been the target of all kind of racism. He’s kind of walking this tightrope. I can’t believe that he doesn’t know and I refuse to accept that he doesn’t care, so I think that he’s doing political maneuvering.

But here’s the bottom line: It’s not going to work. People have to know that something is happening. If the unemployment rate does not drop, I fear for the reelection of this president. But in addition to the dropping of the unemployment rate, there must be some targeting.

You don’t have to say it’s to Black people. You can say it’s to urban people. You could say it’s to pockets of high unemployment. We’ve seen people wordsmith around what they need to wordsmith around, so let’s do some wordsmithing around this community.

Tavis, I neglected, of course, to bring you greetings from Bennett College for Women, the oasis where we educate and celebrate women and develop them into a 21st century leaders and global figures.

Tavis: I knew it was coming, though.

Malveaux: You knew it was coming. (Laughter)

Tavis: And you see I wore my Bennett blue today.

Malveaux: I do appreciate that, Tavis.

Tavis: Yeah, I wore my Bennett blue, yeah.

Malveaux: But I put my Bennett hat on for just a moment to say how this recession has affected some of our students. You have people who two years ago didn’t need financial aid who this year need enormous financial aid.

Parents who had small businesses who – I literally see the unemployment rate in front of me – small business that was that was doing very well, now that’s barely getting by. People who’ve lost six-figure jobs and as I said, financial aid package awarded in April, didn’t need much, come back in July and say, “Uh-oh, just lost a job.”

So people are hurting and our president has to respond to that. Yes, he has other things on his plate, Libya, Afghanistan, all kinds of stuff. That is unacceptable, however.

But, Tavis, you will not get fed in your mother’s house if you don’t put your plate to the table, and I know if it’s your mother’s house, the food is very good.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Malveaux: But you still won’t get much unless you put the plate there. Black America has to ask for what it wants. The gay community has asked for what they want, the Latino community has asked for what they want. We’re so busy being in love – I sat with a brother at Reverend Jackson’s a couple of weeks ago and he said he got goosebumps every time he thought about President Obama.

Unfortunately, someone said to me that I rolled my eyes. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I’m thinking, goosebumps? Man, you’re grown. You know. (Laughter)

See, we’re so busy getting goosebumps that we’ve forgotten to ask for what we want. Oh, yes, we’re all very proud of President Obama, but proud is emotion. Public policy is fact.

Tavis: I hear the point you’re making and I agree with you, but it does raise a serious issue that I have been pressed on, you’ve been pressed on, others have been pressed on, which is how Black people do this dance with the president.

You and I are similarly situated on this, but I try to have some empathy for Black folk who do understand what he’s up against, know that Black folk are catching it more than anybody else, but don’t really know how to maneuver, how to operate, how to make those demands, because they don’t want to be seen as aiding and abetting the haters of this president. So they don’t ask for anything.

Malveaux: But you’re not aiding and abetting, Tavis, when you lift up your voice. Going into my book again, thinking about when – it was A. Philip Randolph who made the demands of President Roosevelt about Black employment in World War II, and Black folk were at the periphery, all kind of jobs were being instituted.

Whites said they would not work next to Black people, and so there was employment available but we couldn’t get it.

A. Philip Randolph went to Roosevelt and said, “You have got to do something,” and Roosevelt said, “Make me.” He said, “Make me.” So when A. Philip Randolph presented him with a plan for a March on Washington in the middle of a war – imagine, a march in the middle of a war, when you’re sitting there fighting for democracy all over the world but you have anti-democracy forces at home – Roosevelt said, “Okay, let me sign an executive order and get you Black people off my back.”

I would posit that similar action might be equally effective, whoever is in the White House. This is not an anti-Obama kind of statement, and as you say, we got spanked from one end of Black America to the other for making very tepid remarks, I thought, just about some things that the president said.

Let me be clear: I support President Obama. But let me also be clear: I am very unhappy with the direction of economic policy at this time.

Tavis: For the folk inside the Obama camp listening or watching this program right now, what they will tell you in a private conversation – well, they won’t tell us in a private conversation –

Malveaux: We won’t have a private conversation.

Tavis: Yeah, we won’t have a private conversation. (Laughter) But we know these conversations are being had, and I know and you know this, that there are two overriding thoughts inside the campaign which they’ll never admit to.

One is they know Negroes ain’t going nowhere. They know that Black people are going to support this president, and so hence there’s no need to put us at the front of the train, so to speak. But there’s also something else they know, and that is – or believe, at least – and that is that if they were to do something specifically for, around, relative to Black unemployment, this president might be accused of being tribal.

Malveaux: Well, there are all kinds of tribes in America, and some of the tribes have been fed and others have not been. But more importantly, Tavis, it’s not that Black folks are going to desert President Obama, it’s that the young, I think, are going to desert the ballot box.

I don’t think that they would – I think you would probably have to pour strychnine down some Black folks’ throat to have them even consider voting for a McCain or a Bachmann.

However, some folks just don’t come out. Then when you combine that with what’s happening with voter suppression for 2012, the deliberate attempt to suppress inner city Blacks senior, youth votes, those things, the Obama might presidency might hang on those votes that are being suppressed.

So let’s not A, allow voter suppression, but then B, also dampen the enthusiasm of the base. The base will not go away, but you know how younger people are in terms of voting. They’re not that serious about it. So you don’t want to dampen their enthusiasm.

When you have this high unemployment, when you have people – the average unemployed person, Tavis, has not worked for 40 weeks. Forty weeks is almost a year. It’s ten months. How do people survive without working for 10 months? So these are people who are more interested now in survival than in politics.

Tavis: You mentioned there’s a lot on the president’s plate; indeed, there is. Today he’s wrestling with the issue of the debt ceiling and all the politics now being played in Washington around that. What should happen with this debt ceiling? Should it be raised?

Malveaux: Yeah, it must be raised. First of all, if we choose not to raise the debt ceiling what we’re looking at is draconian cuts, especially in social programs. We’ve already seen on the education side cuts in the summer PELL, cuts in the SMART program, which basically subsidized students who were going to school to be teachers, math or science teachers.

So we’ve seen some cuts. They’ve been relatively modest. HBCUs will experience some cuts. But what Republicans have been posing are draconian cuts, up to 40 percent. I don’t think we – cuts in Medicare, cuts in Social Security. I don’t think we can manage that.

Tavis: Are they right to connect this raising of the debt ceiling to deficit reduction? That’s what they want, deficit reduction.

Malveaux: I don’t think in the short run they are. I think that in the long run they might look at it. This is not the time to talk about deficit reduction, this is not the time to talk about cuts, because what we’re looking at is in a recessionary time we actually want to put money in to stimulate the economy, but we want to stimulate it properly.

As you said, the stimulus that we put the last time around, too much money got stuck in banks. Banks changed their rules. That money was given to banks to lend, and instead, they held onto it. They changed lending requirements.

Money got trickled down to the states. Some of them used it for right, some of them used it for wrong. Some states don’t even want stimulus money. So unfortunately, the president here is really stuck in a hard place and there will be some deficit reduction.

I encourage him to keep it as minimal as possible. Obviously, the Republicans have the House, they own the House, and so they’re in a position to push things down people’s throat.

But the Democrats still have the Senate, and so we need to – “we” meaning collective America – need to be clear about what it is we want. Progressive people have not been as clear as they might be.

Tavis: You mentioned the banks and you mentioned the House and the Senate now divided. When the Democrats controlled the White House and the House and the Senate, they gave Wall Street what they wanted with almost no strings attached.

Malveaux: Precisely.

Tavis: Now those banks are sitting on $1 trillion, to your point – $1 trillion –

Malveaux: Yes.

Tavis: – that they will not reinvest in the economy. The president met with them a couple of weeks ago, begging them yet again to take that money and reinvest it into the country. What do you make of the fact that we bailed them out, they’re sitting on $1 trillion, and they won’t turn around and put that money back into the country?

Malveaux: We bailed them out and they won’t bail us out, and that money then – from a policy perspective this is why it was so important to have someone like Maxine Waters on that banking committee really pushing that stuff.

Because the bottom line is if those banks cannot do what they were lent this money to do, then what needs to happen is that money needs to be taken back through taxation, through any number of ways. But the banks have become our enemies and not our friends.

Tavis: The larger issue – I want to move now just beyond – we’ve been talking about the debt ceiling, so we’ve moved beyond the Black issue and I want to stay there for a second.

The numbers are clear in this country. Poverty is growing at a rate that I don’t think we can – that we can’t sustain this.

Malveaux: No.

Tavis: The gap between the have-gots, have-nots continues to widen. I believe – it’s not what I believe – my read of history suggests to me that every empire in the history of the world has eventually faltered. Every empire eventually fails.

Malveaux: Yes.

Tavis: What is it about us – I don’t know if it’s our hubris, our patriotism now morphing into nationalism, our arrogance – what is it about us that doesn’t even allow us to consider that this country one day could implode or get crushed under the weight of its own poverty?

Malveaux: I don’t know what allows us to continue on the path that we’re going, but every world indicator suggests that if we stay on this direction we will end up as a developing country. We will end up as a suburb, if you will, of China.

Today, the premiere of China went to the UK. This week they intend to invest in the euro. They’ve said that the euro is – they believe in the euro, they believe in Europe’s role in creating and generating a stable world economy.

Now, someone looking at this says, “Oh, well, what’s wrong with that?” It’s an anti-dollar move, and there have been several anti-dollar moves that have been made – the Arab countries, the oil-producing countries have invested more in the euro. They say they’re diversifying, but they saw no need to diversify before.

What this really says is, “Look, America, you are not the only game in town.” We seem to think we’re the only game in town, and we’re not. We see a couple years ago 75,000 engineering degrees granted in the United States. Sounds like a lot – 350,000 in India, 600,000 in China.

So we’re being dwarfed. They’re investing in education while we’re taking money away from education. But we’re not looking at the signals. Part of it, Tavis, I’m just going to call it like it is – pure racial bias. If you look at the growing and changing demographics, more Black and Brown people, especially more brown people.

We’re not investing in inner-city education; we’re not investing in minority education. So when that minority becomes a majority we will look like a developing country if we don’t make sure that these Black and Brown young people, especially and increasingly young men, whether you have that achievement gap that’s frightening, if we don’t get these young people in the school, what are we going to do?

But we don’t have the policymakers who are paying attention, and quite frankly, while there was a lot of hope around the 2008 election, I never really saw – I haven’t seen in any of the democratic (unintelligible).

I look at Bernie Sanders and that’s probably the most iconic progressive voice that we get that really tries to connect the dots. Other than that you’ve got this sort of compassionate capitalism, but capitalism in and of itself is not compassionate.

Tavis: I’ve got 45 seconds to go. How, then – I hear the point you’re making – how, then, do progressives this time around raise their voice on these issues?

Malveaux: We must talk. We must raise our voice, and we must read my book. Tavis, if you have – this book is really about inspiring us and understanding history. African American people have always played the economic game.

It’s not fair, it’s tilted against us, but we play it anyway and that’s a really important thing for us to consider. It’s a bunch of facts about Black economic history, but it’s also inspiration for our people to understand that this game is tilted, and for progressive people.

We must talk about how to make this game fair. Yes, we have to tax the wealthy more. Of course we do, and most wealthy people of conscience agree. Bill Gates Sr. has agreed that we need more taxation. But then there are those, Michelle Bachman, let people keep their money. Well, what money are we keeping when you have poverty rates in our country that continue to grow?

Tavis: She’s the president of Bennett College for Women and a columnist, nationally syndicated, and the author of the new book “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.” Dr. Malveaux, economist extraordinaire, good to have you on the program.

Malveaux: Always a pleasure, Tavis. Thank you so much.

Tavis: My pleasure.

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Last modified: July 11, 2011 at 3:26 pm