Poverty and the Wealth Gap

Telling Our Own Story | Episode
Jun 6, 2022 | 25 min

Explore the Black experience on the causes of poverty and the wealth gap in Iowa. Focusing on 2008-2021, take a look at the history that led here. Examine how far we’ve come and how harsh realities that many Black people still face pairs with hope.


Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.



How they feel about someone when they're around them and --

-- a lot of balls that I was juggling and being able to explore --

-- hasn't been a lot of attention on black people being wealthy --

-- has to do with sustainable wealth --


Ean Harrelle: For some, the black experience has been about picking yourself up by the boot straps, often times with no boots, no straps, surrounded and stuck in the mud with no line to support. There is data that reveals the results of decades of struggle for those of color that live in Iowa. But there are those in the black community that have found ways to improve what they have, but the learning curve has been a tough one.

So I think in Iowa there's from conversations with black friends, I think opportunities here for people of color are a little bit stagnant.


Justyn Lewis is a business owner and community activist. Lewis, a Des Moines native, is also a public speaker who covers topics like racism and unconscious bias in the workplace.

Justyn Lewis: Why I say that is a lot of my friends who we are all college graduates and some aren't have moved away to bigger cities that are more liberal, more progressive, have a larger black population to get those opportunities. So yes, Iowa has a great opportunity to be better. But we have to be aware of our own bias. That is what Iowans have to do is be aware of what they're thinking about someone, how they feel about someone when they're around them and go from there. So yeah, it is a little stagnant.

When I started this journey I was rolling on my own. And in addition to that, I started this also as the head of household.

Deshara Bohanna is an entrepreneur in Des Moines. After several years in the corporate world, Bohanna started a part-time wreath and floral business under the name Design Fetish. When the workload of private business owner, corporate executive and single mother of three became too much, she quit her corporate job and went full-time with her new venture.

Deshara Bohanna: I had a lot of balls that I was juggling and being able to explore and educate myself wasn't always the top priority. So I've been in this for almost six years, about five and a half years now, and I think that the progress I've made has been pretty, I've done a great job, but I also think that I would have been a lot further if I would have had that support and even the financial background, the financial resources to be able to scale a little quicker as I went along the way.

Andre Wright is a fashion designer from Iowa City, Iowa. Wright, along with Jason Sole, has launched Humanize My Hoodie in 2017. Wright, who started the fashion label Born Leaders United, joined forces with Sole to destigmatize clothing trends associated with black and indigenous people of color. Humanize My Hoodie's mission is to disprove the stereotype of black criminality.


Andre Wright: In fact, I grew up in a very, very poor household with a mother and father and I can vividly remember us standing in welfare lines for government cheese as a child. I had a loving mother, a very strict father and they both worked jobs. And even with that we still weren't able to make ends meet. And I know it was very difficult for us.

It isn't something that I was raised to do in my family. Growing up I was taught to survive.

Ako Abdul-Samad is serving his seventh term in the Iowa Statehouse. He is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Creative Visions Human Development Institute. Their mission is to break the chains of poverty and hopelessness within vulnerable communities and empower people to become prosperous and productive citizens. Ako was a lifelong resident of Des Moines and has witnessed firsthand the challenges facing low income and minority communities.

Ako Abdul-Samad: It wasn't about building wealth. It wasn't until I got older that I knew wealth needed to be built. And so that is where I'm even at today is trying ot build that wealth. I think that one of the issues in being in Iowa is that you don't have a plethora of black men that are building wealth so you don't really have anyone to turn to or to look at and you probably had less than a handful of individuals that were able to.

I think a lot has to do with education, a lot has to do with sustainable wealth tools that are integrated in our communities and there's just not a lot there.


Angela Jackson grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. She is currently Senior Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Athene, a West Des Moines based retirement service company. Jackson is also owner of The Great Frame Up, an art gallery and custom framing business she opened in 2005. She was previously Chair of Iowa's Civil Rights Commission. While she works full-time at Athene, her experienced staff manages the framing business.

Angela Jackson: When you look around there are, when you look at institutions like banks, there are not a lot of banks that are owned by underrepresented individuals or businesses that are in the financial area where you can get education and sometimes there are not a lot of community banks. So all of those tend to be able to have a lens that is prioritizing being more flexible, their interest rates might be a little higher but they're not exorbitant and they're not what I say predatory. So we have in our community a lot of predatory lending resources and that tends to negatively impact the ability to build wealth.

I can say growing up the financial model that was in my household is to study hard, do your work and work as hard as you can, work twice as hard as anyone else.

Mayor Quentin Hart is a native of Waterloo, Iowa. Mayor Hart is the first African American elected to the office of Mayor for the city of Waterloo, Iowa. Before being an elected Mayor, he was Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs for Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa.

Quentin Hart: That was the way it pretty much was. So there wasn't a lot of conversation about 401Ks, Roth IRAs, it wasn't a lot of conversation around that. And so I can't say that I had all the information, I had a great upbringing, my parents were incredible, but my parents were working hard to get by. They both came up from Mississippi in the mid-to-late 60s. So they were doing their best to try to put food on our table. So when I hear the words like wealth and I hear salaries, they are one in the same but they are completely different just because of the knowledge and information that I have been able to receive as I've gotten older. But no, it wasn't part of our household conversation growing up as a child.

Justyn Lewis: I know the black community is the most underinvested community, so we're the most underbanked, we're the least insured when it comes to life insurance policies and that's a huge thing. So when we pass, and we're all going to pass, if we don't have life insurance we can't pass any money onto our kids and if we don't have any assets, we're the largest population with the least amount of assets at times, what are we leaving our kids?

Ako Abdul-Samad: Monetarily I have not inherited a dime because my parents, my uncles, they didn't think that way. I wish they had bought McDonald's, I wish they would have left me Casey's, that type of thing. But no, what it is now is having to do this on my own and then watching other individuals and aligning myself with friends that now are building that wealth.

Andre Wright: There hasn't been a lot of resources, there hasn't been a lot of attention on black people being wealthy. The other thing I believe there has not been an education tool to really teach us financial literacy. We started just thinking about being wealthy when we became adults. So a lot of other cultures have wealth engrained in their system meaning that they have cultural years and generational wealth that they have been taught from their grandfathers, uncles, aunts, all these folks have taught this to them. And I believe wealth is a taught thing. It's not something that you just kind of -- for us it's been something that we haven't acquired ever. So with that being said, I also believe that there's been a lot of generational trauma from black holes to red tape to redistricting to slavery, which we faced centuries or years ago and we still do to this day.

Quentin Hart: If you take a look at the average cost of housing, same houses, same amount of bedrooms, same amount of bathrooms in the neighborhood that I grew up in and then you compare that in other parts of this community for the same house, same everything, it's lower in the geographic area that I'm from versus other parts. So you think about it, you go for a credit application or you want to use some of the residual dollars that you have in there, the equity in your house. And so if I only have $40,000 worth of equity and another person with the same house has $100,000 worth of equity, then that is already a disadvantage right there of $60,000, just using it as a rough example. When it comes to overall just the banking environment, nationally one black business receives a loan within their first year within seven business people, white business people in their first year. And so that access to capital is a challenge as well. So home ownership, access to capital for businesses are tremendously impacted.

Quentin Hart: Also, just seeing, taking a look out in the community and seeing other African American males to be able to have that conversation about economics, about investment or it doesn't even have to be a black male, it could be anyone, to have those types of financial conversations is something that was missing in our local community too as well. So from housing to business ownership to reinvestment and economic tools, that has been a challenge locally.

One of the ways American developed wealth that could be passed onto future generations was through the GI Bill. Signed into law at the end of World War II, the bill ended up being undermined in many states where Jim Crow laws were in place. This discriminatory practice was used by some states and local governments to promote the idea of separate but equal. Due to the prejudice against people of color, several banks, colleges and universities also made it difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to accrue wealth or even get a good education.


Justyn Lewis: We had the Great Depression, we had World War II, but really want people to pinpoint at World War II and what was going on. We had black GIs going over and fighting for a country that didn't want them and as their white counterparts were able to partake in that they were able to buy homes, and I live in a house from the 1950s, possibly created by the GI Bill or funded by the GI Bill, bought by the GI Bill, they were able to buy houses and those houses were $12,000, $10,000. And now those grandparents are passing away and selling those houses. Those houses are worth $160,000 $220,000 and those grandparents could take equity out on those homes and put their kids through college and then pay it all back off. And now they're leaving that asset to their kids. And what is that asset able to do? Well, now that next generation can pay off their house, put their kids through school and fund things that those black GIs never had the opportunity to have. And then you add on top of that redlining and now their houses are being devalued. So that same $12,000 house may have grown a little bit in worth but it's only worth $40,000, $60,000, less than half of what their white counterparts are. And then when they wanted the opportunity to move out of those neighborhoods they were kicked out, couldn't move west, they couldn't go south. So those are the things that we need to be mindful of because those structures are still hindering those same families, those structures are still dictating society's rule. And what I like to tell people often is rules aren't just the rules when problematic people wrote them.

Ako Abdul-Samad: As I got older and you're talking about the movement taking place, then ownership came in and then I adopted the African saying that says if a man is hungry give him a fish, but if you teach him how to fish he eats for a lifetime. So I extended that so I can start talking about wealth not only to myself but to others. But I tell that if you teach a man or woman how to own the pond then they build communities. And so now in Iowa we have individuals that are striving to own the pond to before we didn't. All we wanted to do was just learn how to fish.

Andre Wright: I would say I'm often having that conversation about wealth. After you ask somebody how they're doing, you say what are you up to nowadays? That conversation has evolved over time. When I was younger the conversation used to be, how much work are you holding? Because of this environment, we had been taught that we could only sell drugs to actually make some wealth, from all of our examples, from everything we see was always of a drug dealer. And I come from Waterloo, Iowa where that was perpetuated and poured into in our neighborhoods. It was insidious, it was infested in our community where we had to almost be a drug dealer. Even if you were a square you still had some work on the side. And those used to be the conversations, it was about paper, this fictitious money, you've got to go get money, you've got to go get money. And even in today's social media world you see people showing money phones and having money and blah, blah, blah. So the wealth conversation has always been engraved in our conversation, but the evolution of that has been different. So now when I talk to my homies they're talking about houses and we're going to go buy this property and we're going to fix it up or we're going to own this restaurant or we're going to get a collective of individuals and we're going to have a holding LLC and we're going to put our wealth in this holding LLC and we're going to go try to buy up, we're into stocks now so more black people are into stocks and understanding what that stock market looked like. And I feel like the future of black wealth is decentralizing of the banks, which is the block chain and this new thing called NFTs and using cryptocurrency to not actually have a ceiling on if we can actually gain that wealth. And those are the conversations I'm in today and I'm interested in. Me being an artist I understand the power of being able to own your art, but then also allowing others to own your art, but then also for you to make residuals off your art. And so I feel like those conversations have come just as of recently been more entertaining, it's very, very early, very, very surface level. But I feel our people we like to do a lot of knowledge based stuff and do a lot of deep diving before we actually get into it and the more deep diving we get we'll actually see that we will be able to unlock those chains mentally and also physically with the abundance of wealth once we get into those markets.

Justyn Lewis: What I have always been taught from my father is work ethic and work ethic and working hard and showing up every day and being committed will help you slowly climb the ladder, slowly, but climb it. But then also being black there's already other obstacles. You face racism, bias, bigotry and a whole host of other things that we have to navigate. So yes, it can be hard. But it can be done. But what I would tell my white friends and white counterparts is millennials right now, we're the generation that are removed from the Civil Rights, the first generation removed from Civil Rights and Jim Crow as we are now coming into leadership be mindful of those things, of equity, what actually MLK said because now the baby boomers are retiring and now the reins are being handed over to us. So what can we do about it these next 30 years while we're here, hopefully more, we can really make some serious change because the old guard is switching over.

Quentin Hart: I was talking to this business guy, right, and we were talking about some investments downtown, we applied for a grant, we did this and he was like, all these charity projects because we want to go back over there and do something. So what I had to explain something to him because the conversation about housing and that is that neighborhood we partnered public private partnerships with the grocery store owner, with a white developer to develop a couple of the houses, we partnered with Habitat for Humanity and then you start seeing the Boys and Girls Club did a brand new teen center, you've got black businesses, Spellers Hardware that has gone right back in there, you've got Big Q's, you've got a number of businesses and things taking shape. So it's not charity, it's reinvestment and that same reinvestment that we were able to put seed money with our community development and our time and effort as a city has yielded over $18 to $20 million worth of economic investment right there. Every house that you build in that neighborhood is an economic investment. Every house that you rehab or you give some attention to, to help fix it up, that is a reinvestment within that community. So yes, it builds hope, it creates shelter, it works with the neighborhood groups, but you're also creating capital in that area and it shows that the proper reinvestment with the right mindset will be able to yield economic opportunities throughout that entire neighborhood. So this is going to be a model that we're going to be able to use when we go to other areas of our community that are in need of some support and attention. So it's not charity, it is reinvestment and it yields economic investment over and over and over. So we need to change our mindset about reinvigorating our communities.

Andre Wright: I would say this, as a black man in Iowa, I want our people to start to establish more of their own infrastructure meaning that we've got to constantly continue to read, we've got to constantly continue to study, we've got to constantly continue to have examples and seek our the mentors whether it be black or white to help us get over the hump and get past some of those obstacles. We've got to be on the edge of our seat. We can't just always be talking about this stuff, we've actually got to be actionable. So we've got to be actionable, we've got to be actually moving towards something like making steps towards something whether it be like I'm reading a chapter a night and I'm going to learn this little bit or I'm going to learn a new video design so I can actually go make some money or actually I'm going to learn accounting. And so it's those things that we've got to do, the really practical small steps. It's like an elephant, no way you're going to eat a whole elephant, you've got to break that elephant down. You eat one leg, you might eat the hoof, you might eat the tail, you might eat an ear. The same thing with life and how we're going to gain wealth, we have to take it bit by bit, phase by phase, part by part and in turn eventually we can actually see some black wealth within Iowa.

Justyn Lewis: I could tell you what I go through all the time but you'll never feel the discouragement, you'll never feel the pain, you'll never feel the hurt of being black. You can empathize, you can show up and be an ally, but you can never feel that pain and feeling that pain really could change some stuff in this world. So creating wealth in America, it can be difficult for the black man who shoulders a lot already, but it can be done. But I think a lot of our black parents say, our parents say, you've got to work twice as hard just to get half of the way there. And again, I have a great father who showed working twice as hard, sometimes four times and five times. But I work three jobs because I know I've got two kids relying on me to be successful so that their futures will be successful. You can climb the ladder, but we've got to do extra to even get up on one prong.


Ako Abdul-Samad: Red Foxx said it, again I'm dating myself, but they told Red Foxx in an interview they said, money doesn't bring you happiness. And Red Foxx said, but it's a great first step. Those are the things we have to learn. It's okay to have money. It's okay. And money is not the evil, it's what you do with it. But money helps you do the things that you need to do to take care of your family, to build your community and give you a comfortable way of life. And that way you can take care of yourself. So I say to people, especially black men, don't be hoodwinked and bamboozled, for people to tell you that you can't get rich, money isn't something you should strive for. No, money is what you strive for and still take those vacations, still help your community, but then you can be the best example for our babies because that's what is going to change our condition.






Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.