The leader of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization this week said that President Joe Biden can improve the quality of life for Black Americans by ending college student loan debt that has hampered their economic dreams for generations.

“When it comes to the racial wealth gap, there’s no credible way to address it without ending student loan debt, full stop,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP said during a virtual press conference hosted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies on Wednesday.

Often described as the nation’s preeminent Black think tank, the 52-year-old, Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Joint Center works to towards ideals that will improve the social and economic quality of life of Black Americans.

During press conference, the Joint Center presented a summary of a survey it conducted this month. It polled 600 African Americans and found that 73 percent approve of the job the Biden administration is doing, but 50 percent of Black Americans are generally pessimistic with the course the country is taking.

“Despite the president and vice president’s fair/positive approval ratings, Democrats in Congress fare slightly worse with an approval rating of 68 percent,” Joint Center officials said. “Meanwhile, one-in-five Black Americans (21 percent) approve of the job Republicans are doing.”

Jessica Fulton, the Joint Center’s vice president of policy, took note of the disparity between the president’s approval rating among Black Americans and their pessimism about the course the country is taking. Black Americans’ sentiment about the country’s direction “usually aligns with the president’s approval,” she said.

Seven out of 10 Black Americans are expected to watch the State of the Union Address next week. And they want the Biden-Harris Administration to address the “issues that are most important to them, including affordable healthcare, affordable housing, reducing poverty, creating more good-paying jobs, reducing inflation and the cost of living, increasing the minimum wage, and making college more affordable,” officials with the Joint Center stated in a release made public after the briefing.

“The poll from the Joint Center reflects the old saying that when white America gets a cold, Black America catches pneumonia,” Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, said during the press briefing. “The economic recovery our country is experiencing continues to escape many Black Americans.”

Albright added that in order to mobilize Black voters, “it is essential the president’s State of the Union speech speak directly to their issues, including poverty, health care, and job creation. How the president speaks to these matters will have a great impact on how groups like Black Voters Matter are able to mobilize Black voters during the upcoming midterm elections.” 

At the onset of Wednesday’s briefing, Chandra M. Hayslett, the Joint Center’s vice-president of communications, said the survey results were intentionally released one week before President Biden’s March 1 State of the Union address before the U.S. House.

The Joint Center’s message to the president following the survey results: he needs to address the issues facing Black Americans whose vote propelled him into the White House.

The majority of the survey respondents also say their top priorities include several that are part of President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, including financial support for Historically Black College and Universities, making childcare more affordable, and expanding the Child Tax and Earned Income Tax credits. 

 Last month, President Biden announced that the nation’s unemployment rate had fallen from 4 percent to 3.9 percent, marking the sharpest one-year drop in unemployment in US history. He said it was the first time the unemployment rate has been under 4 percent in the first year of a presidential term in 50 years.

Biden, in a January 7 White House statement addressing the previous December’s jobs report, noted that his administration had lowered the unemployment rate to 3.9 percent “years faster that experts said we’d be able to do it.”

“And we have added 6.4 million new jobs since January of last year—in one year,” the president added.

But while Biden touts his administration’s economic success, “we know Black Americans’ economic situation is not getting better,” Fulton said during the 30-minute press briefing.

Fulton noted that unemployment among Black Americans—at 6.9 percent—is twice the unemployment rate for the rest of America.

She said that 61 percent of the survey respondents described their personal economic situation as “fair, or poor,” while only 28 percent of the group reported an improvement in their personal economics.

Alex Camardelle, the Joint Center’s director of workforce policy, said there are “quite a few, specific bread and butter issues” affecting Black Americans the president needs to address. Camardelle said that not all of the remedies for what ails Black Americans can be addressed through executive order, but the president can use his position of power to influence the national conversation.

He noted that the Joint Center’s survey found that 85 percent of Black Americans said that the creation of good paying jobs was a top priority.

Biden rightfully praises the creation of millions of new jobs, but Camardelle says that “historically, those jobs are not distributed equally,” and that Black Americans may not be enjoying those job gains.

The survey found that 87 percent of the respondents want the administration to help reduce poverty. Camardelle wasn’t surprised. He says the 2020 US Census found that the poverty rate among Black families is double the rest of the American population.

“There’s less upward mobility, and more downward mobility that’s exacerbated by systemic racism,” Camardelle says.

The survey also found that 80 percent of Black folks want better access to credit, and 78 percent want the Biden Administration to introduce measures to close the racial wealth gap. The net median income of about $100,000 for White families is 10 times greater than the income of Black families, Carmardelle added.

Meanwhile, 81 percent of the survey respondents want greater support of Black-owned businesses, 80 percent support raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25, and 81 percent want the government to play a greater role in addressing systemic racism.

Johnson, the NAACP president, said there are “building blocks” toward the creation of Black wealth and it starts with ending student loan debt and the disproportionate impact it has on Black Americans. 

The survey reports that 73 percent of Black Americans agree with forgiving up to $50,000 in student loan debt, slightly more—76 percent— agree with forgiving all student loan debt.

Johnson noted that in addition to increases in college tuition over the past 20 years, Black Americans who want to attend college are challenged by decreases in federal Pell grants that have been a credible way to move out of poverty. Now those students in need are relying more on loans to help pay for college.

As a consequence, Black college attendees “find themselves in student loan debt” for decades. 

“This is very important,” Johnson explained. “Someone might have started college, but didn’t finish. Now they are gainfully employed, but they can’t afford to pay off their student loan.”

Johnson noted that even someone with “multiple degrees” often finds themselves “stuck in public sector jobs that pays 20 to 30 percent less” than the private sector.

“There are talented individuals who could become part of the entrepreneurial class,” he said.

That unpaid debt becomes an obstacle when it comes to applying for a housing loan.

“The number one accelerator of wealth in this country is through home ownership,” Johnson said.

Similarly, student loan debt thwarts Black Americans’ entrepreneurial aspirations.

“Many small businesses depend on equity in their home to start a business,” he said. 

Johnson said that as a consequence of the systemic racism that has been a prominent feature of America’s economic decision making for centuries, Black families’ ability to accumulate wealth through homeownership and small business enterprise “is almost non-existent.” 

Johnson said although there’s an evenly divided US Senate, and nearly evenly divided US House, these are things Biden can do to ease the economic struggles of Black Americans with an executive order.

“There are tools in the toolkit that this administration can utilize, aggressively,” said Johnson, adding that while Biden has touted his administration’s overall economic success during his first year in office, targeting specific issues on behalf of African Americans has not been put forth.

“I hope he addresses them with his State of the Union.”

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