‘You’re on your own’ is seriously overrated

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There comes a point in our lives when we are eager to strike out on our own. The responsibilities that come with that are different for different people. But fundamentally, “on your own” means you are ready to make decisions about your life an

There comes a point in our lives when we are eager to strike out on our own. The responsibilities that come with that are different for different people. But fundamentally, “on your own” means you are ready to make decisions about your life and accept the consequences of your actions.

Unlike you and me, Wall Street got a pass on the second part of that statement last week when Congress approved a $700 billion bailout of the financial markets. After seeing how it all went down in Washington, I’ve concluded that “on your own” only applies to average American citizens, not the big-money lenders who got us into this mess.

Our nation’s lenders were on their own for years under a period of government deregulation. Left to their own devices and motivated by greed, they took advantage of loopholes and put tens and thousands of people into high-interest loans the borrowers could not afford to pay back. As a result of this lending orgy, the housing market was crippled, banks racked up a record number of foreclosures and the economy went spiraling downward.

Here’s the flip side: When the average citizen loses his shirt on a business deal or destroys his credit by defaulting on a loan, does he get bailed out? No. He’s on his own.

Lawmakers across both aisles touted the rescue package as necessary to keep our nation’s economy from slipping into a modern-day Depression. And while that may be true (or a scare tactic to argue for the bill’s passage), my gut tells me that the so-called “rescue” will not be a game changer for many of the Americans footing the bill.

And though the bailout includes language calling for some assistance to homeowners facing foreclosure, the relief will not be nearly as far-reaching as that approved for Wall Street’s fat cats. Furthermore, the long-term impact the current economic crisis will have on Americans will differ based on where they were financially before Wall Street struck the iceberg.

The middle class had been shrinking for years. The ability of some American citizens to compete successfully in the global economy was already stymied by poor education and training, and a lack of employable skills. What all this means is that if you were having a hard time making a living in an economy growing more global every day, you are in for an even steeper uphill climb.

In the wake of the bailout, we should all ask ourselves: “In this new economic climate, how do struggling individuals and families plan for the future? In the aftermath of this bailout, what other obstacles can they expect?” Seeing where we are today makes me grateful that we at the Chicago Urban League had the insight and forethought nearly two years ago to shift our agenda away from social services to focus exclusively on economic empowerment as the key driver of social change. America’s current economic crisis has renewed the imperative for organizations such as the Chicago Urban League to be even more diligent in advocating for policies and providing pathways to financial well-being to prevent middle-class and low-income families from falling ever deeper into crisis.

At the Urban League, our response to the nation’s “on your own” doctrine was projectNEXT, which seeks to empower African Americans in five areas: entrepreneurship, workforce success, education and advocacy, commercial real estate and human capital development.

When I officially announced projectNEXT in February 2007, I never imagined at the time how relevant the Urban League’s shift in focus would be today. But I suspect that I, perhaps, had a feeling. Frankly, the “You’re on your own” mindset that swept over the nation–from welfare reform to the current foreclosure crisis–had a dangerous ring to it from the start. I realize that some Americans are sickened at the thought of our tax dollars going to bail out corporate honchos. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last week after the bailout package passed the House: “We were dealt a bad hand; we made the most of it.”

We can only hope that the lessons learned from all this will not be forgotten, starting with rethinking what it means to be on our own, when it’s a good idea to go it alone, and the circumstances that dictate who gets help and who doesn’t.

Cheryle R. Jackson is the president of the Chicago Urban League. She can be reached at president@thechicagourbanleague.org.

Copyright 2008 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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