In a gritty Brooklyn community where Latino and black business owners have trouble getting bank loans and at a glitzy Manhattan ballroom packed with corporate leaders, President Clinton on Thursday unveiled proposals intended to tap entrepreneurial energy to narrow America's income divide.
"If we can't do this now, we will never do this," Clinton told the annual meeting of the Wall Street Project, an organization founded by civil rights leader Jesse Jackson to spur partnerships between the corporate world and minorities. With unemployment steadily holding under 5%, "economic opportunity should be the birthright of every American," the president said.
Like many of Clinton's ideas, the economic proposals are modest in scope and built on themes popular with Republicans as well as Democrats. Nonetheless, they could have practical effects.
For example, a new proposal dubbed "first accounts" would involve the Treasury Department in working with local banks to remove fees and other obstacles that discourage low-income families from opening bank accounts. According to the Federal Reserve, about a quarter of families earning less than $25,000 do not have bank accounts and thus are hampered in establishing credit histories.
Another initiative would engage the Treasury and the Postal Service in trying to bring more automated teller machines to low-income neighborhoods, where check-cashing houses now charge a premium for banking services.
Clinton also said that he would resubmit to Congress an expanded version of his "new markets tax credit," which would grant a tax break to lenders who invest in distressed urban and rural communities. The bonus, equivalent to 25% of the amount invested, would be available to lenders willing to back projects in areas where the poverty rate is 20% or greater.
Finally, Clinton called for expanding the number of federally recognized "empowerment zones" from 31 to 41. These are usually distressed industrial areas in which employers qualify for tax breaks based on the number of jobs they provide for residents. That concept is popular with Republicans.
The mood at one of Clinton's stops, Boricua College in Brooklyn, vividly illustrated the despair that remains in America's pockets of poverty. Earlier in the week, a maintenance man was found murdered in a stairwell at one of the college buildings. Television interviews with his grieving family formed the backdrop for Clinton's visit.
The presidential motorcade stopped in the midst of a rundown commercial district dominated by 99-cent stores, fast-food restaurants and the tracks of an elevated train. The college's new business development center was in a storefront, and Clinton climbed the stairs to a cramped third-floor meeting room, where a small crowd waited. The institution was founded some 25 years ago to educate Puerto Rican immigrants.
While acknowledging problems in the neighborhood--unemployment is double the national average--Clinton chose to focus on its potential for transformation. He was introduced by Enealia Nau, a daughter of Dominican and Puerto Rican immigrants who went to night school to become a lawyer. Nau recently was awarded a federally backed loan to expand her consulting service for minority business owners.
"When community members own our own businesses, the community gets stronger," said Nau. She said that several years ago she was encouraged to stay in school when she listened to a speech by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now a U.S. Senate candidate in New York. "Her words inspired me to follow my heart and give something back to the community," Nau said.
Later, at the Manhattan event sponsored by Jackson's Wall Street Project, Clinton pledged to use his last year in office to promote economic development in distressed and minority communities. "We have a moral obligation to lift up these areas. This is in the economic self-interest of the people who have done well, the people whose stock has gone from $5 to $55."
Clinton said revitalizing areas like the Brooklyn neighborhood he had visited earlier could help keep the economic expansion going.
The Wall Street Project, now more than 3 years old, is an effort to get large corporations to establish business, educational and philanthropic links with minorities. The project seems to be bearing fruit at several companies. Executives from Bell Atlantic, Coca-Cola and Citigroup told the audience that they are now contracting with more black- and minority-owned firms.