Why I Wrote A Few Thousand Dollars: Sparking Prosperity for Everyone

All my adult life, especially over the last 40 years since founding Prosperity Now in 1979, I have explored the community practices, public policies and private market adjustments necessary for everyone to play and prosper in the American economy. 

I have always believed that people, including low-income and even very poor people, have more capacity than opportunity. Four decades of on-the-ground experience confirmed that lesson to me over and over again. Prosperity Now and our thousands of partners have demonstrated that given a reasonable chance—often as little as a few thousand dollars—working families will start businesses, create jobs, buy (and keep) homes, go to college, save money and invest to build their own economic futures and ours. 

I wrote A Few Thousand Dollars: Sparking Prosperity for Everyone (New Press, forthcoming, October 9, 2018) to share lessons gleaned from not only 40 years of economic development practice, but also from 250 years of American history. At a time when most American families are losing ground in their search for the American Dream, I felt a particular responsibility to suggest the way forward to unleash and harness the productive capacity of all people—to live up to the American promise of opportunity for all.

In five chapters—"Wealth", "Savings", "Generation", "Home", "Business" and "Prosperity"—24 stories of grassroots entrepreneurs and pioneering social entrepreneurs, and 16 original illustrations by acclaimed British artist Rohan Eason, A Few Thousand Dollars charts a course to proven strategies for building wealth for everyone.  

I am about to enter my eighth decade (hard to believe), and there are younger, smarter and more diverse people at Prosperity Now and the field who can lead the nation forward in the way Abraham Lincoln heralded, “to lift artificial weights from all shoulders, to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all, to afford everyone an equal start and a fair chance in the race of life.”

And we need them, because America is facing a crisis of wealth inequality. Although the federal government spends more than $700 billion a year investing in the homes, businesses, savings, education and retirement of American households—an average of $2200 annually for every man, woman and child in the country—more than a third of it goes to the richest one percent, and more than half to the richest five percent. Barely five percent flows to the poorest 60% of the American people—those who need it the most. 

All told, the wealthiest .1%, of people making over $1 million a year get an average annual benefit of $160,190 while working families making under $50,000 get an average annual benefit of just $226. We are not just observing or tolerating wealth inequality. We are creating it. 

During the 20th century, most antipoverty policy focused on the creation of an income maintenance and social service “safety net” to support the food, housing, health and social needs of low-income people. While that is the mark of a civilized society, the larger truth is that the safety net did not open a path to economic independence and prosperity for low-income people. In fact, if inadvertently, it often penalized dependent families for doing the very things they needed to become economically mobile: earn, learn, save and invest. Do any of those things, and benefits were curtailed, often precipitously. This was a loss for both the families involved and the country as a whole.

Instead, we could turn currently upside-down tax incentives for savings, businesses, homes and education into investments in the productive capacities of everyone. The final chapter of the book, "Prosperity", reviews the great investments in the common genius of our history: universal public education, the Homestead Acts, the 30-year mortgage and housing finance, and the GI Bill. These created enduring prosperity and wealth for tens of millions of Americans, even while missing millions of citizens of color and women. I argue for a Prosperity Bill (think GI Bill meets 401k) that would match the first thousand dollars in savings for everyone on a sliding scale. This is how we create the America Langston Hughes foresaw, “the America that never was yet still must be.”

Thousands of colleagues in economic development, asset-building, microenterprise and related fields, and the millions of working Americans who started businesses, went to college and bought homes have been co-authors for this book. It is my fondest hope that you will be my fellow evangelists in spreading this message of hope and prosperity, and in making its promise a reality. 

All attendees at the Prosperity Summit will receive a pre-release copy of the book. If you are not attending, please pre-order a copy so you can be among the first to read it upon its official release October 9, 2018. Let us know what you think of the book on social media using #AFewThousandDollars.

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