Race, Place and the Financial Future of St. Louis

“I do not wish to minimize the complexity of the problems that need to be faced in achieving disarmament and peace. But I think it is a fact that we shall not have the will, the courage and the insight to deal with such matters unless in this field we are prepared to undergo a mental and spiritual reevaluation — a change of focus which will enable us to see that the things which seem most real and powerful are indeed now unreal and have come under the sentence of death.”

Fifty-two years ago, these words were at the heart of Martin Luther King’s Nobel Lecture, in which he declared, “The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty.” More than a half-century later, America’s communities are still waiting to declare victory in this war. Although Dr. King’s declaration was long overdue, millions among us — particularly our brothers and sisters of color — continue to live on the brink of crisis, one financial mishap away from economic devastation.

To understand the tenuous economic situation haunting communities of color, one need look no further than St. Louis.

Recently, at a movie theater in suburban Pagedale, more than 100 people gathered for an event hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis to probe the complex challenges facing St. Louis households. It was a conversation that could have happened in dozens of cities like it across the US — places where upward mobility can feel like a dream. But this conversation, inspired by our recent book, What It’s Worth, was full of hope. Hope because we’re finding innovative solutions that are improving financial lives. Hope because a solution that works in St. Louis can spread, bringing progress to individuals and families in communities across our nation.

Here’s what we heard, why it matters, and what we can do — together — to make a difference.

Understanding the Challenges We Face

Inside the theater that day, local experts described a range of key issues facing low- and moderate-income St. Louisans, especially those of color.

Financial health *is* public health

What good is a doctor’s advice to eat well if there’s no healthy food for miles? Jason Purnell of Washington University in St. Louis described how food deserts in low-income and predominantly African-American and Latino communities are negatively impacting families’ ability to stay healthy. Zoom the map out further, and the stark connection between financial and physical health and well-being can be seen in racial disparities in life expectancy rates in the St. Louis region. As Purnell wrote in an op-ed in the St. Louis American this morning, a child in predominantly white Clayton can expect to live an average of 18 years longer than a child in the majority-Black Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. Across this city, and in sister cities across the country, a ZIP code can determine whether a child will have the opportunity to reach her full potential.

These findings all support the claim Purnell offers at the end of his essay, “Financial Health is Public Health”: if we want people to live full and healthy lives, we must invest in the resources that make financial well-being possible.

A depressed housing market

But investing in the ability of all St. Louisans to live a full and healthy life requires more than just a focus on public health. A range of other challenges disproportionately harm families of color. One such challenge has to do with the region’s depressed housing market. As Chris Krehmeyer, CEO of Beyond Housing, noted during the discussion, homes in predominantly Black communities tend to be appraised at such low values that Black families who work hard enough to achieve their dream of homeownership often don’t enjoy the opportunity to build equity in their homes.

The racial wealth gap

Likewise, race proves to be a key determinant of education outcomes in St. Louis. Although attendance rates in St. Louis City overall stand at about 94%, these rates vary widely by neighborhood. In several of the City’s predominantly Black schools, especially charter schools, attendance rates hover barely above the 60% mark. Because housing and education tend to be two primary gateways to long-term wealth-building opportunities, these outcomes reveal why the racial wealth gap in St. Louis and nationally continues to grow. Dedrick Asante-Muhammad, Director of CFED’s Racial Wealth Divide Initiative, noted that if current wealth-building trends of the past 30 years continue, it will take African-American families 228 years to amass the amount of wealth white families enjoy today.

Three Opportunities to Reverse St. Louis’ Troubling Economic Trends

To borrow from Dr. King’s words, if we are to overcome the complex problems we face, we need to shift the focus of our thinking. Although the situation facing the St. Louis region is far from rosy, our conversation in that packed movie theater was not simply a story of doom and gloom. Rather, we heard a range of promising opportunities to build financial well-being that are premised on a reorientation of our priorities and resources.

Three of these opportunities in particular are highlighted here as proven solutions that have the potential to boost financial health not only in St. Louis, but in dozens of cities like it across the country.

1. Be deliberate in community economic (re)development.

Last week’s discussion was held in the 24:1 area of St. Louis County, a community land trust comprised of 24 municipalities. Under the leadership of Beyond Housing, the 24:1 community has been redeveloped with a sense of thoughtful intentionality rivaled by few other communities. For example, the movie theater that played home to the event, along with a grocery store and a community health center, were all developed to revitalize the community by filling the health and well-being needs of its residents.

At the same time, Beyond Housing has negotiated with local authorities to actually prevent certain businesses from being established to avoid over-saturating the market. Whereas most economically depressed communities jump at the chance to bring in new businesses, Beyond Housing recognized that the opening of new stores in the 24:1 neighborhood often spelled the closing of other stores, leaving buildings vacant and residents without the products and services they need. As a result, Beyond Housing has worked to attract businesses that fill needs within the community, which has proven instrumental in improving outcomes for residents of Pagedale and beyond.

2. Invest in the potential of low-income children through Children’s Savings Accounts.

In 2015, St. Louis joined a host of other cities and counties by rolling out a Children’s Savings Account (CSA) program, College Kids, which opens an account for all kindergarteners in the City and seeds those accounts with a small initial deposit. The impact of these programs is powerful: even with as little as $500 or less in a savings account in their name, low-income children are three times more likely to go to college and four times more likely to graduate than their peers without savings.

Michael Sherraden, Director of the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, pointed to CSAs as a critical tool for helping reverse the trend of diminishing education outcomes, especially among low-income families. These innovative programs inspire savings by matching families’ contributions to their children’s college savings accounts — paving the way to education and brighter futures for both kids and their communities.

3. Meet people where they are by integrating financial capability into social service systems.

When a person enrolls in a social service program, it presents a unique opportunity to connect them with a suite of services that they’re likely to need. In Springfield, MO, The Northwest Project does exactly that, helping clients achieve ten “essential assets” with tremendous results. According to Project Manager Amy Blansit, this approach in Springfield has led to improvements in participants’ credit scores, decreases in the number of past due accounts, increases in the uptake of safe and affordable banking accounts, and more.

Premised on the 1,000 in 1,000 program pioneered by Family Foundations in Jacksonville, FL, the Northwest Project builds on the recognition that the pathway to lasting financial wellness requires a holistic approach that integrates financial capability into several facets of a person’s life, rather than simply treating financial capability as a one-time endeavor.

Learning from St. Louis

These three innovative solutions illustrate why St. Louis, despite its challenges, is on the cutting edge of reorienting how we think about financial health and well-being. Each of these examples show, to borrow from Dr. King’s words, that St. Louis has “the will, the courage and the insight” to bend the trajectory of history toward economic justice. Moreover, St. Louis is proving to other cities that rampant racial wealth inequality doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture in their communities.

To learn more about how you can help build bridges to financial well-being in your city, visit strongfinancialfuture.org.

Read Jason Purnell and Dedrick Asante-Muhammad’s op-ed in The St. Louis American.

Sean Luechtefeld is Associate Director for Communications at CFED.