Magazine | March 28, 2016, Issue

Black Voters, Too, Want a Choice, Not an Echo

The GOP and conservative principles can supply the lack

Sabina Loving dreamed of owning a business and becoming her own boss. A black single mother living on Chicago’s South Side and working full time, she decided to make the leap into entrepreneurship by turning her tax-preparation side gig, which she operated out of her home, into a full-fledged business. With a little luck and a lot of perseverance, she opened up Loving Tax Services and served the local clientele, who were mostly black and working-class.

In June 2011, the IRS passed a regulation that mandated a new tax-preparer license, which totaled about $1,000 per preparer once all exams, fees, and costs for continuing education were aggregated. This regulation would effectively put Loving out of business because she wouldn’t be able to afford to hire enough preparers. So she sued the government, claiming that the IRS was overstepping its authority. And she won.

In a congressional hearing last October, presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz held Loving’s misfortune up as an example of the harmful effects of intrusive government. He has recounted her story a few times on the campaign trail. But for Loving, this was not just about standing up to an expanding regulatory state. She saw herself as battling yet another in a long list of injustices that obstruct the path to opportunity, success, and self-determination for some people and communities much more than for others.

Consider Loving’s situation holistically. She lives in a city where gun violence is shamefully high and its victims are disproportionately black. The Chicago Reporter reports that the seven Chicago neighborhoods with the highest percentages of residents living in deep poverty (an annual income of $5,885 or less for an individual, $12,125 for a family of four) are predominantly black and that so are nearly two-thirds of the neighborhoods with above-average poverty rates. Under-resourced and under-performing, Chicago public schools are being closed, leaving parents with few suitable, affordable options for their children. Crain’s Chicago Business reported that the South Side has lost 2,000 hospital beds in recent decades, has no trauma centers, and suffers excessively long ambulance-response times. It is one of the most under-served health-care markets in the world. Furthermore, banks, insurance companies, and even the Small Business Administration are increasingly less likely to invest the capital that entrepreneurial black Americans need. A great deal of economic malady is concentrated in black communities and effectively cordoned off from the rest of the population.

Loving’s particular predicament is an issue of racial justice. Though the factors contributing to the economic disadvantage faced by black Americans belong to a variety of policy areas and are not necessarily drawn up with race in mind, their confluence places a specific, crushing burden on some segments of the population. Racial justice is concerned with removing such conditions and impediments to social mobility.

To acknowledge that economic inequality overlaps with racial inequality is consonant with conservative principles. So is the understanding that government programs designed to provide citizens a hand up should be effective. But the Republican party has been reluctant to address race head-on, contributing to the narrative that conservatives are out of touch and apathetic about the plight of black Americans.

There could be, however, a Republican racial-justice platform. It would include business deregulation that especially helps small businesses, school-choice programs that give parents more control over their children’s education, and criminal-justice reform that gives more Americans a chance at redemption and opportunity instead of wasting people’s lives and taxpayer dollars on mass incarceration. It would include the increased involvement of community and faith-based organizations in the administration of local services to those in need. These sorts of conservative measures are not race-specific. Frankly, they don’t need to be. As I explain below, their cumulative effect can be oriented to remedy racial injustice. A Republican racial-justice platform would redefine the party as exceptionally inclusive and welcoming to all those who simply want to be law-abiding citizens making better lives for themselves and their families.

No Republican presidential candidate has attempted to explain how the conservative principle of less regulation could benefit black small-business owners such as Sabina Loving and the communities they employ and serve. This issue could be discussed as part of a web of issues that affect black Americans differently in different parts of the country.

Neither the party leaders nor the candidates have put the pieces of the puzzle together. The racial-justice platform has not yet been assembled from the numerous distinct policy aims the party is already pursuing. If Republicans want to communicate their principled commitment to equality and give black Americans a clear choice at the ballot box, they must call the amalgamation of the various policy ideas by its name. Just as the party has been quick to criticize the president for not uttering the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” so too must it own up to its own reticence on race, justice, and the America that many blacks experience. Republicans should not be afraid of uttering the words “racial justice.”

The Republican racial-justice platform should begin with House speaker Paul Ryan’s anti-poverty plan, which Ryan first introduced in 2014 at the American Enterprise Institute. He addresses poverty by proposing reforms of aspects of America’s economic, education, criminal-justice, and regulatory systems.

For example, one element of Ryan’s proposal that was supported by most of the Republican presidential candidates at the recent Jack Kemp Forum on Expanding Opportunity is the Opportunity Grant, which would consolidate several federal means-tested safety-net programs, such as SNAP, child care, and housing assistance, into a single allocation to the states and give them more flexibility to apply those resources to the particular challenges they face in combating poverty. The grant would require able-bodied recipients to work, encourage states to develop new approaches to overcoming poverty, and require periodic evaluation of the state’s administration to ensure proper stewardship of taxpayer dollars. It is appropriate to return decision-making authority to the states because poverty is not uniform across regions. Addressing poverty in New York City is a different challenge from addressing it in rural Mississippi.

Another major component of Ryan’s plan is an expansion of the earned-income tax credit (EITC). The EITC is an effective federal program that provides a tax credit to low-income families with at least one working member. Often a family is penalized with a reduction in benefits when a member starts working. For poor families, this serves as a disincentive to work, so the EITC eliminates it and instead ensures that work is rewarded. Governors Chris Christie and John Kasich and former governor Jeb Bush have all spoken about the success of EITC expansion in their states.

As part of the racial-justice platform, reform of the social safety net must be coupled with education reform. To that end, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina has introduced the Creating Hope and Opportunity for Individuals and Communities through Education Act, a.k.a. the Choice Act. It would encourage school choice for students with disabilities, expand options for low-income students in the nation’s capital, and create a school-choice pilot program for military families. The bill is limited in scope but can illustrate best practices for school choice and be expanded once it is judged to be effective in helping families improve their education outcomes.

School-choice programs and home-schooling have proven popular with black families that suffer from bad public schools and charter-school lotteries that leave their children’s education to chance. The consistent theme in the conservative education agenda is an increase in options for parents to decide what is best for their children. Republican proposals to allow more education block grants to states for elementary and secondary education, update and simplify the student-loan process, and expand federal work-study programs offer substantial contrasts with Democratic proposals, which are usually characterized by the complex bureaucracy that attends centralization of power in Washington.

Criminal-justice reform is an obvious plank of any racial-justice platform. Republicans should waste no time in developing policies to return over-punished and rehabilitated Americans to the work force. In 2012, incarceration cost the nation well over $40 billion. And that figure doesn’t begin to account for the millions of potentially taxpaying wage earners whom incarceration removes from the economy. Reform entails not only the reduction of sentences for nonviolent offenses but also the reintegration of former prisoners into communities to reduce recidivism and increase productivity. The Republican agenda focuses on state and local programs that have demonstrated success and shares those models across the nation. Even the ultra-left Mother Jones magazine recognized Nebraska, Utah, Illinois, Alabama, and Georgia as states that have Republican governors and legislatures and are leading on criminal-justice reform. As with the EITC and education, this is an issue on which conservatives have led and gained bipartisan support.

On health care, Republicans should seek to amend the Affordable Care Act not just to reduce costs and provide more choice but also to increase access to health care in terribly underserved areas. They should also explore ways to incentivize private investors to help meet health-care costs through such mechanisms as encouraging more private-equity investments in health care, encouraging the growth of health-savings accounts, and expanding public-private ventures that increase the number of doctors and facilities in the neediest areas. Giving people health insurance but without ensuring timely and reliable access to doctors would hurt minorities and the poor the most.

Conservatives should couple their proposals for regulatory reform and small-business growth to enable more black Americans such as Sabina Loving to prosper. Taking this approach can reduce the employment-rate gap between whites and blacks, as black businesses in black communities will likely hire black employees and serve black clientele. Money will circulate in these communities for a longer period and thereby improve their economic vitality. Small businesses represent an enormous share of the job creation that has occurred in recent years.

Racial justice based on conservative principles also means that a community will partner with police to increase patrols in high-crime areas and empower citizens with some measure of oversight. It means abandoning legislation that imposes obstacles to political participation by poor and minority citizens, such as frivolous laws that prohibit former convicts who have paid their debt to society from voting. It means ensuring that federal funding doesn’t unintentionally exclude some citizens and that it isn’t used as payment for political support. It means ensuring that poor communities are not exploited by predatory financial practices and are not drained of public resources that have been allotted to aid them. And it means doing all of the above through a federal government whose primary purpose is to protect citizens from discriminatory practices while giving them more power to make decisions about what works best for their states and localities.

For black voters, the biggest problem with the candidates’ discussion of racial justice is the lack of alternative approaches. As such a voter, I can say without equivocation that giving the federal government more money to do what it should already be doing is not an attractive solution. I can also say that it is highly preferable to doing nothing.

Taken as a whole, the Republican agenda should offer a stark alternative to the racial-justice plans offered up by the Democratic presidential candidates. It is smart politics, and policy, for Republicans to package their initiatives together to help every American have a better chance at achieving his God-given potential.

– Mr. Johnson is a doctoral candidate in public policy at Northeastern University and a former White House Fellow.

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