The numbers tell the story: unemployment among African Americans in St. Louis is 17.6 percent, four times that of whites.
And the unemployment rate is important because unemployment turns out to be a major factor in severe health disparities in the region, according to research by the “For the Sake of All” study.
With life expectancies in the region as much as 18 years apart depending on the zip code, the challenge to change it may seem insurmountable. But residents, researchers and community leaders gathered at St. Louis Public Radio Thursday evening to discuss ways to turn findings from the multi-disciplinary study into tangible changes.
Four panelists focused on ways to create economic opportunities for African Americans in St. Louis. They considered everything from college savings accounts for kindergarten students to teaching computer coding.
Edward Bryant of the St. Louis Minority Business Council said the biggest barriers he sees for African American entrepreneurs are access to start-up capital, technical assistance and access to networks.
“St. Louis is a two-degrees of separation town -- it's who you know,” Bryant said, to murmurs of assent in the crowd.
Panelist Tishaura Jones, treasurer for the City of St. Louis, outlined her plan to create deposit-only savings accounts for every kindergarten student in the city’s public or charter schools, starting with $50 dollars each. Similar programs, called 529 plans, already operate in the Normandy School District, San Francisco and the state of Oklahoma.
Jones said even the existence of a savings account boosts college enrollment and increases parents’ expectations for their children’s academic success.
“We’re doing this because I personally think that it’s the government’s responsibility to eradicate poverty,” Jones said.
The plan calls for $200,000 dollars to be provided by the city, with $500,000 raised by other donors, Jones said. She plans to begin the program in the fall of 2015.
After a panel discussion, attendees were asked to write down the names of initiatives and organizations they knew that were working to address economic and health disparities in St. Louis. Moderators also asked them to identify gaps in the discussion.
During the public comment period, attendee Eric Vickers said the issue of race discrimination is missing from the conversation.
“There is no discussion of how we deal with that head on and cure that. And until we cure race discrimination, which serves as the impediment to economic development, we really are not going to be progressing,” Vickers said.
‘For The Sake of All’ lead researcher Jason Purnell encouraged those in attendance to share the project’s research with their networks, to volunteer and to write to their legislators. Purnell said it was clear from the discussion that the next steps should include frank discussions about race, community health and connecting people to the resources that are available to them.
“That was the idea, to really give everyone in the community -- from all sectors -- a chance to weigh in on these issues and move forward,” Purnell said.
The meeting was the first of six forums that will focus on health disparities in the St. Louis region.
St. Louis Public Radio and the University of Missouri-St. Louis are involved in a project to study and expand communication about the issues identified by For The Sake of All. Funding for this project was provided by The Missouri Foundation for Health. The Missouri Foundation for Health is a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.