Omar Tyree, Chicago Leader Discuss 'Downward Mobility'

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The program continues its discussion on downward mobility and its effect on a younger generation of African-Americans. The discussion follows a Pew report suggesting that many blacks born to middle-class families are financially worse off than their parents. Author Omar Tyree and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson discuss their observations based on the reports findings.

CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: Women helping women by the millions. But first, we continue a discussion we began yesterday about the downward mobility of many African-Americans born to middle-class parents in the late 1960s.

A study from the Pew Charitable Trust tracked black and white families for three decades. While the report found that family income rose for both groups, middle-class black Americans had the most trouble transferring benefits to their children. As adults, two out of three of those children dropped from the middle class and had incomes at or approaching levels of poverty.

Well, joining us today to continue our discussion are Cheryle Jackson, the head of the Chicago Urban League, and author Omar Tyree.

Thank you both for joining me.

Ms. CHERYLE JACKSON (President, Chicago Urban League): Thank you.

Mr. OMAR TYREE (Author): All right. Thanks for having me on.

CORLEY: Well, Omar, you were born in 1969, and you're right at the age that the study is talking about. And I know you can't speak for everyone, but why do you think your generation is different?

Mr. TYREE: Well, I got about 10 reasons. You know me being a writer guy, that's what I do. I list a whole bunch of things and give a whole lot of information. But…

CORLEY: All right, give me your top three.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TYREE: All right. Well, I don't know if I'll call it a top three.

CORLEY: Okay.

Mr. TYREE: I'll just call it the first three, if you're going to do it that way. But a lot of times, when you're the first one to get a lot of wealth, we have what we call keeping up with the Joneses. And so a lot of times that first person to get the wealth in the family ends up spending a whole lot of money to look like they're wealthy now.

Number two, the great opportunity, if you're looking at the generation right before me - the civil rights generation, the black power society - they had a whole lot of opportunities that opened up to them that the new generation are now getting closed doors, where there's a lot more competition now.

You know, now that whole generation of getting those open opportunities of civil rights and affirmative action, you know, a lot of those doors are closing now. So, you know, keeping up with the Joneses, the great opportunity opening and closing of the door, and now we have a world of more competition where a lot of these guys haven't been trained to be hustlers like the generation before us.

CORLEY: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, we might ask you about your other ones, so keep those handy as well.

Mr. TYREE: Seven more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: Seven more.

Cheryle, I want you to talk a little bit about what Omar is talking about, because when I first read this study, I wondered how much of it really is tied to the change in the economy - the opportunities that Omar was talking about, and the types of jobs that helped create the middle class 30, 40 years ago. What's available to them now?

Ms. JACKSON: Jobs in the manufacturing industry certainly were a key source of employment that really afforded not just African-Americans - but certainly African-Americans - a middle-class lifestyle, and those jobs are more and more going offshore. So that's one challenge.

I think the other challenge is that we're increasingly becoming an information, you know, industry in age, and we're not keeping pace there largely because of a failing school system and education, particularly not urban communities, plus a lack of economic opportunities and really a lack of economic infrastructure in the African-American community, where we can create wealth…

CORLEY: What do you mean by the economic infrastructure?

Ms. JACKSON: When you go into our communities, an urban communities, there's a lack of retail and commerce. There are no jobs there. There's little economic infrastructure that really contributes to a healthy and vibrant community. Essentially jobs, entrepreneurship and education in urban communities are failing on all three fronts.

It is no wonder that we see the trends the Pew Foundation in that report and many other reports are reflecting something that everyday African-Americans know and live with every single day, that things are worsening. The mobility is declining. It's certainly not on the rise.

CORLEY: Omar, do you think people still have the drive to do better than their parents financially?

Mr. TYREE: Yeah, that's my number four. The struggle is not over. You know, a lot of times we look at the generation that came before us. Boy, they had a lot of things to fight with. And I think that a lot of the speakers that I've heard recently have said, well, your generation doesn't have that much to fight for now, you know, so you gotten kind of lazy about the struggle. And so definitely, you all, that will influence people not to work as hard as the generation before them.

But I want to tap on a couple of other points that were mentioned. When you talk about the loss of factory jobs, that's my number five.

CORLEY: Okay.

Mr. TYREE: It takes more ingenuity now. You have to come up with more creative ideas that create new businesses and create new wealth, and a lot of that stuff happens to be the computer age. Well, if black schools don't even have computers, then they can't learn how to put together different Web sites and, you know, Googles and MySpaces and Facebooks and all these things that are making billions of dollars now. That also takes investments.

And so a number seven for me is financial literacy. They have to know how to do business plans and proposals so they can go out there and talk to money people to get investments for these smaller companies that they want to start to become bigger companies. And a lot of simple education is not going to prepare you for that. So now we have to get more technical education, and we're not getting that in an urban community.

CORLEY: Let me stop you right there. When you talk about the idea of financial literacy, Omar, did your parents talk to you about money?

Mr. TYREE: Yeah, my mother opened up a bank account when I was 7, and she was a college grad, and she was the oldest of eight children. And so here I am, I'm the oldest grandchild of the next generation. So again, I'm on that position where I'm the family leader, so yeah.

CORLEY: Cheryle, is it - do parents need to do essentially what Omar's parents did, or should it be on parents to be teaching their children about this?

Ms. JACKSON: I think it's parents, it's the community collectively that needs to shift its focus to economic empowerment, how teaching principles of financial literacy, entrepreneurship, college - not just an undergraduate degree, but higher degrees. This focus traditionally has been around social services as a way to drive social change…

Mr. TYREE: Right.

Ms. JACKSON: The Civil Rights Movement and the civil rights struggle of the 21st century is economic empowerment. So we need to look at principles of entrepreneurship, financial literacy, education, and you can't talk about economic empowerment without talking about education hand in hand.

Look at those principles as a way to drive social change to begin to sort of mitigate some of these problems that we see now. There really is a lack of plan - a strategic plan, economic development plan for urban communities.

CORLEY: I'm Cheryl Corley, and this is TELL ME MORE. I'm speaking with author Omar Tyree and Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League.

Let me ask you a couple - just two other things, because there, of course, have been large differences and wealth in terms of home ownership, for example, between African-Americans and whites. And there's been a big push for more African-Americans to own homes, but we've also seen how that effort has turned on people with subprime mortgages, with other financial products that have pushed people to the brink.

So what lessons, Cheryle, should we learn from that?

Ms. JACKSON: Education is key. You cannot talk about economic empowerment without talking about education and being informed. But, you know, Cheryl, this is why recently, in recent months, I completely shifted the focus of a Chicago Urban League from a social service model to an economic development and empowerment model. We have to be single-mindedly focused on how do we educate African-Americans about very important tools that are key to wealth creation and financial stability. Homeownership is ground zero of building wealth in your family.

And if you don't understand how not to be taken advantage of and red lined, then you're forever shut out of the process. We know that certain solutions can work. Entrepreneurs create jobs, good jobs sustain communities, and solid communities make better schools, safer streets, and attract outside investment.

I know that it works, because I've seen this before. My father was an entrepreneur. He was a financial adviser and an accountant raising a family of seven in the Memphis in the '60s. A turbulent time, he couldn't get hired by white companies. But instead, he used his tools, his financial skills, to uplift and build other black businesses. He turned a carpenter into a multimillion-dollar contractor and…

CORLEY: And that's just exactly the kind of - the generation that we were talking about, that first generation of parents who were able to do those sorts of things.

We've been talking about the financial situation of the black middle class, and I should point out that a third of the middle-class blacks in this study did end up becoming better off financially than their parents. And a larger number of low-income African-Americans increased their earnings overall. And just as a last question to you both, I was wondering if you take any sort of comfort in that at all.

Mr. TYREE: Okay, well, you know, I have - this article woke me up to make sure I get my kids' ready, which I'm already getting my sons ready. They already have several accounts, and they're already talking about ways in which they can make money.

So secured wealth is part of the deal here, where they're not sinking in quicksand. They know whether they have solid financial ground, and I'm going to teach them more principles as they get older.

So now I have to look at spreading that shape to the cousins. Some of my cousins have been helped out with my finances to a great deal and, you know, have helped themselves out.

And so now, you just keep stretching it. With this new book, the "Pecking Order," I'm going to stretch it again. I actually have a children's book and a new business book coming out next year called "The Equation."

CORLEY: All right, so you said this was a wake-up call. Cheryle, a wake-up call, you think, for middle class Americans? Black Americans?

Ms. JACKSON: It's - yes, of course. But it's also reaffirming that we need to do more to support the black middle class. Something that we don't talk a lot about is that the black middle class is the largest social service provider of the lower income African-American community. Omar just talked about it. You know, we are accustomed to helping out and subsidizing our cousins, our relatives, probably more than any other social program that the government could have.

Mr. TYREE: Right.

Ms. JACKSON: All the more reason to strengthen and support the black middle class as a way to enlarge the African-American middle class. It's of great concern, but it's not surprising. It's not at all surprising. I think it will serve as a great roadmap, so that we can all get down on the same page about smart ways to make certain that all Americans are - have a chance at the American pie.

CORLEY: We've speaking with Cheryle Jackson, the head of the Chicago Urban League, and author Omar Tyree.

Thank you so much for joining me.

Ms. JACKSON: Thank you for having me.

Mr. TYREE: All right. Thanks again for having us.

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