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Ferguson Commission hears of economic struggles

Ferguson Commission hears of economic struggles

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Danniel Polk, 27, a single mother of one, gave emotional and riveting testimony about her battle to make ends meet to the Ferguson Commission on Monday night.

Economic inequality and mobility was the topic of the sixth meeting of the commission appointed by the governor, and Polk was the face of it.

“We’re struggling, and we’re struggling hard,” she said, weeping, to the commission and a crowd of over 100 people. “Today I owe rent. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

She said that some people “knock you down like you don’t mean nothing.”

The commission will recommend legislative and other changes to address social and race issues at the root of the Ferguson unrest.

The commission heard from the public, including Polk, and experts who said that St. Louis ranks 42nd of 50 metropolitan areas for economic mobility and has huge disparities in income and wealth by race and ethnicity.

Polk, who has a 6-month-old infant, said that she struggles to get through every day. She lives in Jennings and had to get up at 4:30 a.m. for three weeks to get to work in Cool Valley after violence temporarily shut down the McDonald’s in Ferguson where she had been working.

When her daughter doesn’t have a sitter, or she doesn’t have money to pay one, she can’t go to work.

“I couldn’t pay my gas bill, I couldn’t pay my electric bill,” she said. “I’m trying.” She added that she wanted to be “a strong woman and stand up on my feet.”She is paid $7.80 an hour and is working with workers rights groups including Jobs With Justice to try to get a $15 minimum wage.

The Rev. Starsky Wilson, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission, said afterward that Polk’s story “lets us know this is more than an academic discussion. Thank you. We love you. We will not let you down.

Clifton Kinnie, 18, a community activist, told the commission that the region suffers from economic disparity.

“(In) St. Louis for too long it has been the practice that policies are created to only benefit a select few, rather than the unprivileged majority ... When it comes to the economy in St. Louis, it has become a tale of two wallets, one fat and full of influence, the other empty and unheard.”

Another speaker, Kaylen Smith, 18, a high school senior at Hazelwood East, works at the Ferguson Toys R Us for a little over $7 an hour, she said.

Workers have been told the store is closing, she said. “We can’t afford to fix our store, pay the bills and pay the workers.”

The commission also heard experts discuss economic mobility and economic disparity in the United States and in St. Louis.

Jason Purnellm an assistant professor at the George Warren Brown Brown School of Social Work, said that a study by Washington University and St. Louis University in 2012 found that 31 percent of blacks in St. Louis and St. Louis County live below the poverty level, while only 9 percent of whites do. The study also found an 18-year gap in life expectancy between residents of a ZIP code in north St. Louis and those of one in Clayton.

Purnell also cited data from a study last year by Raj Chetty of Harvard, which put St. Louis and St. Louis County in the bottom 10 of 50 metro areas for economic mobility.  

Ray Boshara, with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, has spent 25 years looking for ways to help low-income families gain wealth. Boshara said research shows that middle-aged and older Americans with better education who are white or Asian generally are thriving, while younger, low-educated African-Americans and Hispanics are struggling.

“Tax breaks to build savings and wealth, which total nearly $400 billion per year, offer the fewest benefits to those with the greatest need,” he said.

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Margaret S. Gillerman is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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