Economics-based ways of closing U.S. income gaps

Last week's Operation HOPE Global Forum in Atlanta was not what most people might envision as the lead-in to a long weekend dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Nevertheless, it was dedicated to one of the late civil rights leader's most fundamental principles: economic equality for all Americans.

As described the Saporta Report, veteran Atlanta journalist Maria Saporta's business blog, the fourth annual HOPE Forum was mostly about business-based approaches to greater economic opportunity for Americans living in, or in imminent danger of, poverty.

It was also a gathering of prominent and impressive public figures.

Keynote speaker for this year's event was former and possibly future First Daughter Chelsea Clinton, now a 35-year-old wife and mother (and expectant mother), and vice chair of the Clinton Global Initiative. Other participants included Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, Lisa Borders of Coca-Cola (who announced a $1 million grant), Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler and former Atlanta Mayor, United Nations Ambassador and civil rights activist Andrew Young.

Also in attendance, of course, was Operation HOPE founder John Hope Bryant, a California businessman and entrepreneur who in 2004 would be appointed by President George W. Bush to the Community Development Advisory Board at the U.S. Treasury. (His worth is recognized far across party lines: President Barack Obama tapped him for the President's Advisory Council on Financial Capability.)

The organization works, as Saporta described, by coordinating with business and financial institutions as well as social service and civil rights organizations to help at-risk people and families develop "financial literacy."

Among HOPE's projects are offices in banks to help people escape poverty by improving their credit ratings (and hence their interest rates), and recruiting tax experts to help people benefit from the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Operation HOPE, obviously, is not a soup kitchen or an alms program, as basic and necessary and life-saving as such ground-level humanitarian efforts will always be. It's a course, if it can be so described, in human rights economics.

This year's "seminar" was well attended: Saporta reported that almost 3,000 delegates represented 40 different countries at the Atlanta Marriott Marquis: "You are experiencing the largest gathering of leaders in the world on the topic of the eradication of poverty and the empowerment of the poor," Bryant told them.

A widening economic divide between Haves and Have-Nots has never been a healthy development for any culture in human history. Giving as many Have-Nots as possible the practical tools with which to narrow that divide themselves is good cultural and economic medicine.