The Council for a Black Economic Agenda was back at the White House this week, once again laying out its "post-civil rights" agenda for black progress.
But in some ways, the more significant meeting had taken place in late December: between the conservative CBEA and a small group of certified black liberals, including D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy and M. Carl Holman, head of the National Urban Coalition.
As a result of that earlier meeting, Robert Woodson and other CBEA members were able to tell the president on Monday that they had the broad-based support of the black community for some of their novel economic proposals, including a program of public housing resident management and an idea for using the tax code for helping the formation of small businesses in economically depressed areas.
The December meeting, at Holman's home, may have marked the transformation of the internecine warfare between black liberals and conservatives into a desperately needed debate over the path blacks should take in the period ahead. They will still have plenty to argue about -- educational vouchers, for instance -- but they also found that they (and several other members of the Black Leadership Roundtable polled by telephone) could agree on a number of issues.
One issue that captured the interest of the president and several of his top aides was a proposal for changing the rules for handling public-housing operating subsidies so that public-housing residents would have an incentive to manage their own dwellings, hire fellow residents for maintenance and other work, and even to start small businesses. The model for that approach (which Colorado Republican William Armstrong has introduced in the Senate) is Washington's spectacularly successful Kenilworth Parkside housing project, run by Kimi Gray, who was a part of the CBEA delegation.
Also sparking administration interest was a proposal, based on a European model, to allow welfare and unemployment compensation recipients to use part of their payments to start new small businesses -- either by letting them remain on the rolls for a year after the start-up of a business or by giving them a six-month advance on their payments. That device is credited with having created some 250,000 new businesses in England and France since 1979.
The CBEA's centerpiece proposal drew less White House enthusiasm, probably because its cost is so difficult to figure. That proposal would allow investors in new small businesses in depressed areas to write off their investments in the current year, just as mortgage interest is written off under the present law. CBEA's Paul Pryde, who originated the scheme, believes that it might well be financed through income taxes produced by the new jobs (some 80 percent of all new jobs are created by new and expanding small businesses) or by eliminating mortgage deductions for second homes.
Council members believe that there is little hope for enacting new race-specific initiatives, and that blacks have to get involved in the nitty-gritty of hard analysis. "If we looked at the tax reform proposals on the basis of who has been most sympathetic to blacks, we would have gone with Bradley-Gephardt," Woodson said. "But the Kemp-Kasten version would leave blacks with an additional $1.7 billion in tax savings, as opposed to only $188 million under Bradley-Gephardt. The cold truth is that neither bill was written with blacks in mind -- but so what?"
Although this week's meeting was far less controversial than the first White House meeting a year ago, which was roundly criticized by the civil rights establishment, the CBEA delegation did not leave with any prizes to wave in victory.
"What we found," says Pryde, "was an interest, a willingness to take a good look at some of our proposals. But it will take some work with the Cabinet secretaries and assistant secretaries to get some of these things accomplished. We have to work it like any other interest group: with follow-up, compromises and alliances. But I think we can get some things done."