September 27, 2023
Shennell McCloud

Black women have historically been among the most marginalized groups in the United States. Yet — as the past two years have made abundantly clear — while others talk, Black women do the work. We organize, mobilize and fight back when our democracy is under attack, when our communities need support and when our children’s futures are on the line.

A policy agenda that centers on Black women would put New Jersey on the right side of history and expand economic opportunity to every corner of our state. The candidates for governor should use the final weeks of this election season to embrace such an agenda. Black women are paying attention. We always do.

What would such an agenda look like?

A recent poll from The Highlands Project surveyed more than 700 Black women across the country. It highlighted several key priorities, including closing the racial wealth gap, confronting systemic discrimination across sectors, protecting voting rights and eliminating student debt.

At the core of The Highland Project’s work is a simple yet revolutionary idea: investing in Black women benefits everyone in society. Take the economy, for instance. Nationally, Black women’s spending power is estimated at over $500 billion. Yet Black women are carrying the highest student loan debt of any demographic group in the country.

New Jersey certainly isn’t immune to these trends. New Jersey has one of the largest wage gaps in the country between white men and Black women, at 55 cents on the dollar. Overall, the state’s white residents have a median net worth of more than $100,000, compared to just $179 for Black residents. As housing costs have surged, wages have stagnated, and many families have lost jobs or had hours reduced during the pandemic — a combination of factors that has made New Jersey one of the most unequal states in the country.

We can unlock the economic potential of Black women with the right policies. It’s not just about creating wealth in a traditional sense, though. The Highland Project is — wisely — calling for us to reimagine the racial wealth gap and start thinking beyond money to confront inequities in power, leadership, social mobility, ownership and justice. By taking this holistic approach to confronting injustices, we can disrupt systems that have prevented Black women from fulfilling their God-given potential.

There’s work that leaders can do at every level of government to center Black women in their political agenda. Here are five ideas that New Jersey political leaders — particularly the candidates for governor — should champion.

  1. Make it easier to vote. Voting access is a top concern for Black women nationally, and while New Jersey has taken steps to improve voting systems, there’s more work to be done. Voter turnout actually declined last spring in Newark, even during a relative lull in the pandemic. That’s because city and state leaders abandoned some of the practices that helped increase turnout in 2020. There’s no reason New Jersey should not implement same-day voter registration, and the state should move back to a system in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot in future elections.
  2. Make college more accessible. The crippling burden of student loan debt holds back young people of all backgrounds, but it’s a particular strain for Black women. Gov. Phil Murphy’s successful push to provide free community college tuition to students from low-income households was a massive step forward, but we don’t need to stop there. The state should explore making tuition free for low-income students at all state universities, setting an example for the rest of the nation.
  3. Guarantee basic income. The best way to help a family that’s struggling is to provide cash assistance. Give families enough money to cover more of their basic needs, and they’re not forced to choose between putting food on the table, paying for life-saving drugs or keeping the lights on. In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka has launched a guaranteed-income pilot program that will provide 400 Newark residents $12,000 over two years. This pilot should be expanded to other communities across New Jersey, particularly communities with the greatest need.
  4. Launch a statewide “baby-bond” program. There’s no better time to start building wealth than at a child’s birth. With a “baby bond,” the government deposits money in a savings account when a child is born and allows it to grow over time. This funding can then be used for college tuition, trade school or to support a down payment in the future. The baby-bond program has been championed federally by our very own Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Why not pilot it right here in New Jersey?
  5. Get more Black women into leadership roles. This is a call to action for everyone in positions of power — whether they’re an elected leader, CEO, investor in early-stage companies, or head of a large agency: It’s your responsibility to give Black women the same opportunities to take positions of power. The state should lead by example and set goals for everything from the number of Black women leading state agencies to the percentage of contracts given to Black women through state and municipal bid processes.

These are just five ideas: There are far more that can and should be explored. The important thing is for New Jersey to recognize Black women’s power and proactively confront systems that keep them from accessing it. If we do that, we will lead the nation in creating a more just and equitable society, something that benefits all of us who care about the Garden State.