Our Opinion: Butterfield’s best ideas to empower American workers

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As Black History Month came to a close, Rep. G.K. Butterfield was focused on writing history’s next chapter for African-Americans.

The Wilson congressman released a report this week titled “Defining Moment: The Economic State of the Black Community” exploring employment trends, labor force participation, poverty and economic empowerment. It’s a thoughtful document that confronts the problems African-Americans face and proposes some solid solutions.

“African-Americans have seen tremendous growth over past decades when it comes to civil rights and political gains,” Butterfield writes in an introductory note. “But the final frontier to true equality and freedom for African-Americans is economic empowerment. To achieve economic parity, we must recognize the real disparities present in our society that prevent African-Americans from reaching true equality.”

Black unemployment saw an all-time low of 6.8 percent in December before rising to 7.7 percent in January. Though the rate has plunged from a high of 16.8 percent in March 2010, it remains, as Butterfield notes, “the highest unemployment rate for all racial groups nationwide.” National unemployment in January was 4.1 percent overall and 3.5 percent for whites.

In his report, Butterfield lists nine congressional bills that earn his endorsement for addressing poverty and increasing opportunities for families. We’ll highlight three the Times is proud to support.

Fair Chance Act, H.R. 1905 — Known as “ban the box” legislation, this bill would prevent federal agencies and contractors from asking applicants to disclose criminal records on job applications and in interviews. It would not, as critics presume, require bosses to hire workers with checkered pasts. Upon the discovery of a conviction during a background check, employers could weigh the age and severity of the charges against the candidate’s qualifications and decide how to proceed.

Mass incarceration and zealous prosecution for nonviolent crimes has created a large group of Americans saddled with rap sheets who struggle to find work. Keeping rehabilitated convicts unemployed does nothing to make society safer — in fact, it increases recidivism. Neither does it encourage independence; instead, it keeps able-bodied, willing workers on public benefits instead of giving them the chance to earn a living.

Banning the criminal history checkbox on government employment applications doesn’t guarantee individuals a job, it merely allows them to compete in the labor market on their own merits without anchors from their past weighing them down.

Young Americans Financial Literacy Act, H.R. 2674 — Legislation to implement programs for youth and young adults 8-24 to teach financial literacy and address issues including student loans and credit card misuse, and developing those programs through partnerships between colleges, local school districts, nonprofit groups and financial institutions.

High school students are taught algebra and long division, but many graduate without ever having learned how to balance a checkbook, complete a tax return or build credit responsibly without falling into high-interest debt traps. We think all young people could benefit from practical knowledge of money management issues.

Comprehensive Consumer Credit Reporting Reform Act, H.R. 3755 — Amendments to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act that would give consumers the right to appeal the adverse outcome of credit bureaus’ dispute investigations free of charge.

Some lenders report inaccurate or incomplete information that harms borrowers’ credit scores, placing homeownership out of reach and making future loans more expensive. Consumers should have fair recourse when dealing with private third-party credit reporting agencies that go largely unregulated and whose scores and ratings can affect their financial future for years.

We don’t agree with all of Butterfield’s policy recommendations, but we consider his report and its focus on employment and consumer issues an excellent framework to start a conversation about economic empowerment.

African-American citizens aren’t the only ones who stand to benefit from Butterfield’s best ideas. All Wilsonians, all residents of the 1st Congressional District and all Americans would be well-served by a level playing field in government job interviews, enhanced financial literacy and stronger safeguards against abuse at the hands of careless credit bureaus and dishonest debt collectors.

“Jobs and the economy remain a top priority for the 1st District,” Butterfield wrote. “I am committed to providing resources to North Carolina businesses and workers in order to create jobs, prosper and grow.”