Des Moines leaders seek action to close city’s racial wealth gap


The average Black household in Polk County lives on $34,000 a year, about $30,000 less than the median household income for the county as a whole.

“It wouldn’t take us a moment’s notice to figure out what we could do with an additional $30,000,” Deidre DeJear, Financial Empowerment Center program director, said Tuesday afternoon during an online forum highlighting the wealth gap between Des Moines’ Black and white residents.

DeJear joined The Director’s Council, a group of local CEOs and organization directors, to outline targets for decreasing the wealth gap in Des Moines as part of the organization’s One Economy initiative. The group did not make specific recommendations, but outlined goals and asked Des Moines executives and organization leaders to think about solutions.

One Economy, which began in 2017, traces racial disparities in five areas: housing, education, employment, health and financial inclusion. DeJear said during the forum that the city needs to find “holistic” solutions because each of the five issues impacts the other. For example, students without stable housing are more likely to struggle through school, which in turn makes them less likely to land a high-paying job.

From left, Diedre DeJear, of the Financial Empowerment Center, moderates a panel with Philip Herman, Jasmine Brooks and Jackquie Easley with Lonnie Dafney on the phone during the One Economy Blueprint for Action town hall at the Des Moines Register on Tuesday, June 30, 2020 (Photo: Special to the Register from the Greater Des Moines Partnership)

Before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered many parts of the economy, Black residents in Polk County were five times more likely to be unemployed as other workers. The Black unemployment rate was 10.5%, compared to 2.7% for the county overall. Similar disparities existed throughout the state.

During a forum breakout session about employment, Lonnie Dafney, EMC Insurance Companies’ diversity equity and inclusion director, said city leaders need to achieve five goals by 2023:

  • A 5% increase in Black labor force participation.
  • A 3% decrease in the Black unemployment rate.
  • Enrollment of 300 more Black residents in educational opportunities like Pathways for Academic Career and Employment, GAP tuition assistance and Last Dollar Scholarships.
  • Connecting 1,000 Black residents with financial coaches.

“We have to get people out of the lower-paid positions, get them skills, talent ready to enter a workforce,” Dafney said. “But that also then requires a company to come through. If we get the talent ready and available for you, that means they need to be hired for those positions.”

One Economy is funded by the Northwest Area Foundation, a nonprofit based in Minnesota that seeks to decrease the poverty rate.

At the beginning of Tuesday’s forum, Northwest Area Foundation President Kevin Walker said the coronavirus outbreak, as well as the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country since the death of a Black man in Minneapolis police custody, have energized community leaders to continue to decrease economic disparities.

“There is no more timely work I can think of as we try to rise to the challenges of 2020,” he said.

In addition to the goals for employment, the One Economy leaders outlined other benchmarks for Des Moines:

Financial Inclusion

  • 5% decrease by 2025 in the number of African Americans who don’t have bank accounts or whose access to banking services is limited.
  • A 0.5% increase in the loan approval rate for Black residents by 2025
  • A 2% increase in Black-owned small businesses by 2025


  • A 10% increase in the number of Black residents with an associates or higher college degree by 2031
  •  A 5% increase in the number of Black men who have a high school degree or equivalent by 2026
  • A 5% decrease in the suspension rate among Black students by 2023


  • A 3% increase by 2023 in the number of adults in predominantly Black census tracts who have seen a doctor for a routine checkup in the past year.
  • A 20% reduction in Black fetal deaths by 2023.


  • A 2% increase in Black homeownership rates by 2023.
  • A 3% decrease by 2023 in proportion of Black residents and the whole Des Moines and West Des Moines populations who face rents that leave them straining to meet other basic needs.

Tyler Jett covers jobs and the economy for the Register. Contact him at 515-284-8215 and Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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