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I’m an American who counts enslaved Africans among my ancestors, and I have a few ideas for how Congress can get reparations right

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The author, Aja McClanahan.

  • I count enslaved Africans among my ancestors, so I pay attention to reparations discussions.
  • I think cash payments should be a component – stimulus checks prove that cash makes a difference.
  • I also think goal-oriented funds should be made available, like education and business grants.
  • Read more stories on Personal Finance Insider.

As an American who counts enslaved Africans among my ancestors, I have to admit that my ears perk up when I hear any news regarding plans for slavery reparations, like the recent House committee move to formally study reparations. As intriguing and promising as this discussion seems, I can’t help but think about how it could all go down.

On the one hand, it seems like such a complex issue that there are so many ways for it to go wrong. On the other hand, it seems like an amazing opportunity to level the playing field for many who need it.

If we’ve got one shot to do this right, why not explore in-depth all that can go wrong and right? Then, really knock it out of the park when it comes to implementation and record-breaking, positive outcomes.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts on what I think lawmakers and policymakers should consider should reparations legislation materialize in the near future.

Make it effective, make it count

It’s a common occurrence. Money goes to great causes but rarely makes a tangible impact on the target demographic. As someone who lives in the inner city, I’ve seen tons of money come into my community while the problems persist. People remain poor, underprivileged, and subject to all the issues that come with those designations.

Though the standard for relief monies tends to be to disburse funds to organizations and not individuals, I think we should explore the logistics of direct payments. We saw this work with recent stimulus checks – which have lifted millions of Americans out of poverty – and PPP loans, but I think there’s the potential to do even more on this front. Direct payments represent an opportunity to get cash into the hands of individuals who need it.

Incorporate some goal-specific benefits

I think a good feature of a reparations policy would reward people who are already aspiring towards some type of personal, professional, or business goals, or who want to pursue one of these goals and need a boost to get started. Options for these types of reparations might include:

  • Business grants and lower-interest loans
  • Federal financial aid for K-12 and college tuition, and trades, and business education programs
  • Reduced income, property, and capital gains taxes
  • Subsidies for mental health counseling
  • Housing grants for owner-occupied properties

These types of programs could encourage potential benefit recipients to reach financial or professional milestones in hopes that once they do, there will be more help waiting for them to get to the next level. For example, someone considering becoming a property owner might be more inclined to do so if their tax liability is somewhat reduced.

It might be a good idea to survey subgroups of potential reparations recipients and ask what would have the most significant impact on their lives. For some, the answer might be direct payments, and for others, the answer could be something else entirely. Lawmakers should make a serious effort to understand their constituents’ needs and desires in this discussion.

Promoting unity and discouraging division

One of the most challenging aspects of this discussion is the potential for reparations benefits to create an environment of unprecedented division among Americans. If legislation around reparations passes, there inevitably will be a group of people who will feel not only left out, but possibly resentful if they believe their tax dollars are supporting this effort.

Perhaps one way to reduce division and resentfulness might be to make a policy that promotes more willful giving when it comes to reparations. Giving additional tax credits or financial incentives for people or corporations that give, voluntarily, to support reparations could be a start.

We’ve seen pretty impressive generosity from people and organizations when it comes to supporting racial reconciliation efforts. Maybe a large pot of money funded voluntarily and given out according to need and other factors could work.

Getting reparations right

No matter how you look at it, the idea of paying reparations to descendants of enslaved Africans, sadly, is a double-edged sword. The “why” is very clear, but the “how” is a much more intense discussion.

No matter what policymakers decide, some people, including potential benefit recipients themselves, will not be happy with how reparations materialize. However, this shouldn’t discourage politicians and constituents from coming together for productive conversations that could truly produce effective reparations policy and benefits for those who need it most.

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