By J. Chris Sanders, Coordinator, Empower West Louisville 

This letter to Gov. Matt Bevin and members of the Kentucky General Assembly was written on behalf of 12 members of Empower West Louisville.

You will soon be in special session to address public employees and teachers’ pensions. That’s good. The pension plans need attention: they’ve needed attention for years. But years of delay don’t justify drastic action at the expense of the vulnerable.

Empower West Louisville

As leaders in Empower West Louisville, we have a pastoral concern that any cutbacks to monthly pension benefits, and cutbacks to health care, will land hardest on communities of color.

Why? Because black people have very little wealth. Very little wealth in home ownership, because redlining and decades of discrimination denied them homes. Very little in savings, because saving is a luxury blacks can’t afford. Thus, the average black family has a tenth of the wealth of the average white family. On average, whites have $170,000 in wealth, while blacks have only a shocking $17,000.

Again, why will cutbacks land hardest on communities of color? Because public service has been the only job stability in black life for the last four decades. Black people were able to find employment in the public sector when the private sector kept them out. Blacks got humble, stable work as police officers, firefighters, emergency services, teachers and civil servants, with lower wages but sustaining benefits. Some even became middle class.

Now, black people have good reason to worry that the pensions earned over a lifetime of humble service will be jerked out from under them. The pensions are all they have for retirement. Blacks sacrificed heavily over decades of working at lower wages on the promise of health care during retirement. They will have nowhere to turn if you take away their health care.

Black people have good reason to worry about the future of work in public service.

401ks are of little use without large employer-matching contributions. Black people don’t have enough wealth of their own to make use of a 401k, a tax-deferred savings plan. People who spend everything earned just to live can’t save. Blacks need pensions and retirement health care, benefits paid monthly over a lifetime.

You should make changes to the tax code at the same time you make changes to the pension plans. The state’s revenue stream and smoothing out pension reform over the years going forward can go hand in hand. But if you don’t find more money by improving the tax code, you still have to figure out how to pay for retirement.

A pension is a promise. Black people deferred hard-earned income through the years, believing that income would be there in deferred benefits. In the Church, we believe in the covenant, a sacred trust made in confidence built on belief and experience. This is no time to break trust. We’ll be praying as you decide.

Correction: This post has been updated to correct the average wealth comparison.

Empower West is a coalition of Louisville area pastors and churches seeking to unleash the educational, economic, and spiritual power of West Louisville residents so that they might maximize their God-given potential and capacity.

Here are the signers:

Dr. Kevin W. Cosby, Senior Pastor, St. Stephen Baptist Church, Chair
Rev. Joe Phelps, Senior Pastor, Highland Baptist Church, Co-chair
Fr. Troy Overton, St. Edward Church
Rev. David Snardon, Pastor, Joshua Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church
Dr. Frank M. Smith, Jr., Pastor, Christ’s Church For Our Community
Rev. Matthew K. Johnson, Pastor, Ridgewood Baptist Church
Fr. John Burke
Rev. Erica Evans Whitaker, Senior Pastor, Buechel Park Baptist Church
Rev. Norman Sizemore, Pastor, Nehemiah Missionary Baptist Church
Rev. Jason Crosby, Senior Pastor, Crescent Hill Baptist Church
The Rev. Kelly Kirby, Rector, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church
Rev. Ann J. Deibert and Rev. Mark Baridon, Central Presbyterian Church

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