ByAna Hernández Kent
Research from the Institute for Economic Equity has highlighted economic disparities between non-Hispanic white and Black families. The majority of Black families in the United States (over four in five), for example, have less wealth than the typical white family, and that remained relatively unchanged between 1989 and 2019. The median Black/white wealth gap has also been stable and stood at 12 cents per dollar in 2019, according to the most recent information, with the typical Black family owning just $23,000 in wealth.
Yet, Black people play a critical role in the economy and were heavily affected during the COVID-19 recession. For example, Black workers are overrepresented in the essential service jobs of health care support and food service. The Black unemployment rate peaked at 16.7% in April 2020 and continues to be quite high, at 9.2% as of June 2021.
In the St. Louis region, Black people make up a substantial share of the population, particularly in the city. Population share by census tract can be seen in the region below.
SOURCE: 2015-19 American Community Survey.
NOTE: Map created using PolicyMap.
To better understand the unique economic opportunities and challenges of the Black community in St. Louis, I interviewed Veta Jeffery, the managing executive of the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce. Our conversation was enlightening, and we discussed how economic empowerment of majority-Black communities would benefit the region as a whole.
Responses were edited for length and clarity.
Question: On your website, you say that the “whole of Saint Louis needs black Saint Louis to be economically prosperous.” Could you expand on that?
Jeffery: Absolutely, I have a couple of examples. St. Louis has a lot of wonderful things that we’re excited about: the new soccer stadium coming, the great aquarium, the Ferris wheel, the safari zoo in the North that’s being built. In order to visit those great sites from the airport, visitors need to drive through Berkeley, Jennings, North City, Cool Valley—five or six suburbs that all have a median yearly incomes of about $19,000 to $23,000.
By pouring money into these areas by way of small business and investing in them, we’re helping the overall economy grow. We can’t leave out the importance of these mom-and-pop shops who pay taxes, mortgages, car notes and student loans for the owners and the one or two people they’re hiring. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that we need those people gainfully employed for the greater good. In order for St. Louis to thrive the way it needs to, we need all of St. Louis collectively thriving, and Black St. Louis is a major piece of that.
Question: Many people may not realize that about a quarter of the people in St. Louis county and nearly half of St. Louis city are Black. Do you think that this lack of awareness presents certain challenges or opportunities for Black-owned businesses?
Jeffery: I think it presents both: challenges in that they’re often left out of the micro-level conversations. We don’t have the boots-on-the-ground engagement that is needed in the community. It’s an opportunity to get that message across and help people to realize our numbers and the ways that we can significantly contribute to the growth of those businesses. Then we make a difference for them and us.
Question: What are the types of services that the Black Chamber of Commerce offers to businesses and entrepreneurs in the community?
Jeffery: It’s something I’m really excited about. When we were starting the Chamber, we did a lot of research about what St. Louis already had and how we might fill the gaps. We built our priorities around what was missing. One of our main priorities is to organize the Black economics of St. Louis. We created a resource page that shows you everything you need to help you with your business. We put up a video series, so business owners can get quality trainings on their schedules. Small businesses may not have resources or knowledge to create their own websites, and so we created a marketplace where they can list their products and services and then the money goes directly to them. That was a way, especially during COVID-19, that we were able to give people the opportunity to make money.
You also have to be culturally aware of how to speak the language of the people that you’re working with, so they feel comfortable. We created a no-judgement zone space where we do a lot of handholding and walking through to get things like paperwork in order for the businesses. Small business owners tend to try to wear all hats (e.g., marketing, human resources, IT, lawyer), and that’s typically where they start falling short. We created “Your Supporting Cast” to see what other minority businesses and professional organizations are around that we can partner with to benefit both sides. Then the businesses get better, the banks are happy and entrepreneurs can ask questions and get feedback.
Question: It’s commendable that your organization is fostering connections and relationships. I want to shift to COVID-19 and racial gaps like the wealth gap. How might closing these gaps now help the St. Louis area be economically prosperous?
Jeffery: COVID-19 brought out a lot of the deficits and a recognition that we had to meet the crisis where it was. We have many organizations that did a tremendous job in feeding our community. I hear a lot of resource-providing ideas that are social-service driven, like food pantries, but what I don’t hear is building up communities and driving opportunities (like big-box stores) to distressed areas. We can’t just “build it and they will come”—we have to create a movement to lift a neighborhood economically by providing wraparound services so that support is there to help people get to work and on time, and train people with workforce development. People can then walk to work, make money, make dents in their mortgages, continue to grow financially, and then they, and all of us, get better. We create a community that looks like every other thriving community around us. We have to be strategic and focused on the delivery of what we’re looking to accomplish.
To find out more about the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce, visit www.hbcstl.com. To learn more about the Institute for Economic Equity’s work related to Black families and economics, see the resources below.