CHARLESTON, S.C. — Hours before they sat down with broadcaster Soledad O’Brien to talk about the racial wealth gap, a few Democratic presidential hopefuls listened to Taiwanna Milligan explain how hard it is to take care of a chronically ill child on $7.25 an hour.
“I’m a single mother of a sick 12-year-old. My son has sickle cell anemia,” said Milligan, 42, of Orangeburg, who has worked at McDonald’s restaurants in and around Charleston for eight years. “On this salary, I can’t take care of my sick son without government assistance.”
Milligan was one of more than 75 McDonald’s employees and union demonstrators — nearly all of them African American — chanting slogans and holding signs demanding a living wage on a small patch of grass in east Charleston on Saturday.
The workers’ protest took place hours before the Black Economic Alliance Presidential Forum, aimed at a majority-black audience and scheduled to be aired on BET. Taken together, the two events underscored a key issue for South Carolina voters: how economic woes hit blacks harder than whites in this state and in most of the country.
At the forum, four candidates — former congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) — outlined competing visions for how to shrink the glaring wealth gap. They spoke, too, about the disparities in economic opportunity, which makes it harder for African Americans to secure business loans, complete college or attain many of the things that make upward mobility possible.
The Democrats’ ideas could help determine who wins this state’s primary in February — and who wins the White House.
Black Americans make up about 20 percent of the party’s primary voters nationwide, including 6 in 10 voters in the pivotal, early South Carolina primary. As one of the party’s most loyal voting blocs, African Americans played a critical role in picking the past two Democratic nominees, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“You cannot have large sections of your population denied equal access to markets, equal access to capital, equal access to health care,” Booker told the crowd, saying the inequality had a negative effect on all Americans, not just black ones. “You can’t have that cancer and think it doesn’t affect the body as a whole.”
In the week leading up to the event, several candidates introduced new policies or trumpeted existing plans aimed at reducing the racial economic gap.
Warren, for example, proposed creating a Small Business Equity Fund that would provide grants to minority and female entrepreneurs to start or expand businesses. She told the crowd the fund would help about 100,000 minority-owned businesses and create more than a million jobs across the country.
She has also recommended creating a $50 billion federal fund for historically black colleges and universities. Like many of her recent proposals, she said she’d pay for the grant program by introducing a wealth tax on people who make more than $50 million a year.
Buttigieg, in an opinion piece in the Charleston Chronicle, outlined a plan to increase the number of small businesses in black communities, triple the federal government’s contracts with minority-owned businesses and to reform the processes used to determine a person’s creditworthiness, to address what Buttigieg sees as the institutional racism baked into the algorithms used to determine people’s credit scores.
“We need to look wholesale at how access to credit and scoring of credit work,” he said at the forum, arguing that the government needs to fix processes that “mistakenly and unfairly classify a black entrepreneur or an entrepreneur with a black client base as more risky.”
O’Rourke told the crowd that he wanted to expand community development block grant programs and take steps to stop former inmates from being denied jobs or federal tuition assistance.
He also said it’s important for Americans of all colors to push back against institutional racism.
“Racial suppression is alive and well in this day,” he said. “It is systematic and foundational.”
After his remarks, Buttigieg told reporters he was touched by Milligan’s words outside the McDonald’s and said he wanted more people to understand what a living wage would mean to her family.
‘It wasn’t just about her, it was about her son,” Buttigieg said. “It was about the fact that she has a 12-year-old son with medical issues and she’s struggling to support him medically, but also she’s struggling just to be there because she has to work so hard because $7.25 is as good as she can get.”