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American Voices: Cy Richardson

This week’s “American Voices” essay is from Cy Richardson, vice president for housing and community development at the National Urban League.

Typically in America we used to teach civics in, in class. You’d understand issues around compound interest and budgeting, savings, credit. Basic mathematical concepts which allowed you to learn about the power of money, for example. And over time we’ve kind of gotten away from that, we’ve gotten into more esoteric treatments of math, economics, algebra, geometry, trigonometry which has little use in and application in one’s daily life. But you have to understand in asset-poor communities and, and families that are asset poor, that may not have owned a home for example, or may not have had a bank account for example, that’s a large leap for folks to kind of trust these institutions to keep one’s money, trust these institutions to tap into the programs that they’re offering. So I think there’s a — within the racial wealth gap conversation in this country — there’s a massive misperception that we have fair access to these institutions. And the fact is that we do not.

And so organizations like mine are making sure that banks tap into and make sure they provide services to black and brown communities. The National Urban League is a hundred-year-old civil-rights organization that is trying to recast these issues within a civil rights context in the 21st century, around equity and fairness, and our organization believes that banks should be treated as utility companies. They are embedded in mainstream, society. They’re obligated to provide services, credit, access to products that help people build wealth, do not sap people of their wealth. And so banks actually have a critical foundational role to play in healthy communities. And where we see a lack of representation of bank branches for example, or a lack of representation of financial services institutions, we see poor communities, we see communities that are not healthy. And then we see a rise in alternate financial services institutions like payday lending and check cashing institutions.

I think there’s no part of low income in America that should be uninteresting to the top 1 percent. From a consumer standpoint, from an educational standpoint, I think societies rot and fall, when they care little about the least of us. And I think that’s why the banking system is taking such a hard knock these days, because there is this sense that there are large swathes of our population that are unseen, unheard, and uncared about.

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