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Addressing Boston's Wealth Gap: An Interview with Según Idowu of the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts

By Satta Sarmah Hightower, Jul. 06, 2020
Según Idowu, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts

Segun Idowu, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts

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In this interview, Según Idowu discusses the pandemic's impact on economic opportunity in the black community and shares why the racial wealth gap persists in Boston and what leaders can do to make meaningful progress toward achieving economic mobility for communities of color.
Disclaimer: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston did research in 2015 that indicated the median net worth for black families in the city was $8 compared to $247,500 for white families. How do you define the wealth gap and why does it persist?

Según Idowu: The wealth gap is a condition affecting communities of color that exists due to systemic racism in our country over the last 200 years. Our country has continued to believe, especially under a capitalist model, that the development of some communities can coexist with the underdevelopment of others. That's how the wealth gap exists today and continues to persist.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic widened this gap?
SI: Back in early March, when COVID-19 began to impact the state of Massachusetts, we did a survey of our members which showed that 90% of them, before the governor shut down the state, were experiencing a negative financial impact. Over 60% of them only had reserves to last up to 90 days, if at all. The fact that the state was still shut down 60 days later indicates that many of our businesses are going to wind up closing as a result of this pandemic, and many more may not open at all.
Many of our businesses were already experiencing difficulties before COVID-19, and it was because they didn't have adequate access to capital. ... Because of the existing disparities in not only access to capital but information about the existence of this capital, our businesses are having difficulty accessing needed relief. If groups like Pew, McKinsey, or others are saying we may see 25% of small businesses not survive this pandemic, we can triple that for the Black and Latino communities because of the historic injustices and inequities that existed in our systems prior to this pandemic.

You managed a research report that issued a report card on how well the city was addressing economic disparities. How can the city make more progress in this area? 
SI: In 2017, I was elected vice president of the NAACP's Boston branch. One of the first things we did was try to hold the mayor [Marty Walsh] accountable for promises he made during his 2013 campaign. ... We found that a lot of progress hadn't been made, at least not for communities of color.
We believe we're the most progressive city in the nation, and yet, whenever you see markers that indicate we're progressive, it's all these symbolic gestures. It's the creation of a commission or the appointment of an African-American or a Latinx person to a particular position. It's never something substantial that affects the broader community.

What steps can Boston policymakers take to ensure that minority-owned businesses survive after the pandemic? 
SI: First, the establishment of a fund specifically for Black and Latino businesses. ... At the same time, we need to ensure that we are collecting data on who is accessing these relief funds to ensure that we are setting up processes in the future that will impact our community. And finally, contracting. The City of Boston not only spends almost a billion dollars in contracts every year but also receives a lot of money from the federal and state government. It could be giving contracts to our businesses in this time of need to keep our community healthy and to generate wealth for our businesses.

What are other ways to support minority entrepreneurs?
SI: There are a few barriers that face entrepreneurs of color. Access to capital is number one. I'll never forget President Donald Trump talking about how he started off his career with a small loan of several million dollars from his father. Most, if not all, people of color—and most people in general—don't have access to that.
The biggest thing for the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Inc. (BECMA) is procurement. Many times, we'll hear from major institutions that they can't find businesses of color, which is a ridiculous statement, particularly in Boston where people of color make up 53% of the population and where one-third of businesses are minority-owned.
We're also told that minority-owned businesses don't have the capacity or they're not able to do the job. We know this isn't true. They also say our businesses don't have the same quality as majority-owned businesses, which also isn't true. We have evidence to support this based on our members' experiences and seeing how the city and state awards contracts. Access to opportunities is a huge way to address this issue for businesses.

The work you do is really focused on fighting for the betterment of others. Why is it so important to stand up for people who don't have a voice, especially now in light of the pandemic?
SI: The virus is really affecting not only the health but also the wealth of our communities. At the same time, it's critically important that the country understands that when we invest in minority-owned businesses, we are really investing in the future of the entire economy.
It's really important for all of us to work together. I'm often reminded of a Chinese proverb that says, "If you want one year of prosperity, grow grain. If you want 10 years of prosperity, grow trees. But if you want 100 years of prosperity, grow people." For me, it's important that we continue to grow people here in the Commonwealth to ensure the future prosperity of this great state for generations to come.


Learn more about how the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts is advancing the economic well-being of black businesses, and get involved today.

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