During Urban League of Greater Madison Summit

Marc Morial has been President & CEO of the National Urban League since 2003.

During his address to the Madison Region’s Economic Development and Diversity Summit on Oct. 22, Marc Morial said that when he was the mayor of New Orleans a local activist used to argue for aid to low-income neighborhoods by employing an unforgettable culinary metaphor. 

“He used to say, ‘Mayor, put some jam on the bottom shelf. You got to put the jam on the bottom shelf of the pantry where we can get it. You put it on the top shelf, we just can’t get it unless we topple the shelf over.’”

Morial, who served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994-2002, was the youngest person (age 36) ever elected to lead a major U.S city. He went on to serve as the president of U. S. Conference of Mayors in 2001 and currently serves as the president and CEO of the National Urban League. 

During his virtual address to the summit, which was sponsored by the Greater Madison Urban League, Morial made the case for the enactment of a $5 trillion national economic development program aimed at what he called “left behind and left out” neighborhoods. He calls it the “Main Street Marshall Plan,” a nod to the program, carried out largely by the United States under Secretary of State George Marshall, that pumped $15 billion into Western Europe after World War II and was essential to the region’s economic recovery.  

The time for such bold action is now, Morial told attendees, because America’s economic malaise has gone on long enough—to the point where it affects every strata of American society.  

For too many Americans, broad economic trends have been on a downward slope for too long, Morial said, regardless of the jobless rate. 

“The truth is and the fact of the matter is whether we had high unemployment or low employment, the actual economic standing of America’s poor, working and middle-class Americans has been on a steady deterioration for decades.”

Wage stagnation is the main culprit, Morial said. 

“It’s because most people’s number one asset is what they earn when they work, it’s their income, it’s their paycheck. That’s what most people rely on, that’s what most people rest on. For America’s poor, working and middle-class citizens those earnings have simply not kept pace with inflation over the last 20 or 25 or even more years.” 

For those at the top of the heap, it’s a different story. 

“It’s remarkable when you look at comparatively increasing earnings against inflation for the top 20 percent, where their earnings have outpaced inflation and everyone else’s has not even kept pace with inflation,” Morial said. 

The trend marks a break from the the period that stretched from 1945 to 1975, when earnings for people from all income levels rose faster than the rate of inflation. One reason for that trend was the quality of jobs—many more jobs paid a living wage during that period, especially union jobs.

Keeping the quality of jobs uppermost in mind is important when advocating for and designing economic empowerment policies, Morial said.

“It is about the types of jobs, it is about your ability to know how workface and education and corporate policies evolve to help people move up the proverbial economic ladder and to build a set of economic strategies that help people get on the ladder and move up the ladder in a consistent way.”

Lose that focus, Morial said, and too many people will be stuck working two or more jobs (to say nothing of side hustles) just to make ends meet. It’s a national problem, Morial said, one that too many misperceive by looking only at the stock market. Such myopia, willful or not, is unacceptable, Morial said. 

“And we cannot dismiss it and just say ‘Well, the economy created x-y-z jobs and the stock market is doing so good and that’s the end of the story.’ That’s not the end of the story—it’s a much more complex situation.” 

A key component of any meaningful urban economic redevelopment program is one that’s focused on cities, Morial said. Past programs, like President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Model Cities program and the empowerment zone program implemented during President Bill Clinton’s tenure, featured such components. But Johnson’s and Clinton’s programs were starved of funds by their Republican successors and the progress those programs made in revivifying urban centers, many hampered by redlining and other racist policies, stalled. 

That’s led to “the proliferation of second-tier financial services — pawnshops, check cashing, and payday lenders — and sometimes second-tier retail and liquor stores and fast food only,” Morial said. “No neighborhood should have only those options — it should have quality retail as well, it should have first-tier financial resources as well.” 

Non-profits like the Urban League of Greater Madison must play an essential role in not only advocating for the adoption of the Main Street Marshall Plan and related programs, but in carrying them out. To explain why, Morial returned to a version of the metaphor employed by that community activist in New Orleans.

“We sometimes have to ‘tree shake,’ sometimes we have to ‘jelly make,’” Morial said. “Sometimes we have to play in the sweets, sometimes we have to work in the neighborhood and the streets, and that makes Urban League unique.” 

During the question-and-answer session that followed his address, Morial was asked by Dr. Ruben L. Anthony Jr., the president and CEO of  the local Urban League, what he would say to inspire people to advocate for the kind of policies he’d just finished discussing. 

“We have to be marathon runners, and perhaps as a generation we’ve not faced the kind of challenge like this that requires us to be long runners,” Morial said. “This is unique year—but let it be a year that helps us redirect and redefine our futures. That’s what it needs to be. We can’t get tired, we can’t get cynical. We can’t get weary.”