Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver: Climbing the Ladder of Success While Carrying Others Part 1

Photo by Liz Lara-Collado, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs

At the beginning of Black History, The Harlem Times sat down with New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver, the first woman of color to hold statewide office and the first African-American woman to serve as Assembly Speaker in the state of New Jersey, to discuss her work in developing the community. For the next three months, we will be highlighting Lt. Governor’s Oliver’s work in the state of New Jersey and her Life Story to discuss financial literacy within communities of color, the impact of an HBCU education, advice to the youth and her vision for the future. 

Q: What interested you in pursuing and supporting and advocating for financial literacy?.

A: You know, all around the country in communities of color, we’re having broad discussions about wealth disparity. When we take a look at the net assets of a family of color, and we compare that to white families in the country, there is such a broad disparity. In New Jersey, we will see, for instance, the assets of a white family, $13,000, the assets of a Latino family, $6,000, African American family, seven to $8,000. And we began to delve into why do we see this broad disparity? There are a number of reasons. One of the reasons is our community being undereducated in the use of finance in the use of credit and how to best maximize the assets that we do have.

I began to examine communities of color that are targeted for certain financial products. And, I often use the example of Renter centers. you don’t find Renter centers, in affluent Westchester county communities. You don’t find them in New Jersey, in Bedminster or Short Hills, but you find them in urban neighborhoods. They will “rent to own” a sofa with exorbitant finance charges or exorbitant weekly fees. Whereby if we just teach the concept of deferred gratification, just wait a month or two every month, put $50 aside, within two months you can go into a store and purchase your sofa outright.  We have to stop being consumers in our community and get out of the process of accumulating things and consumerisms, and put that money to work for us.

I also became concerned that I encountered too many young people who never had a checking account, didn’t know how to fill out a check, and never had a savings account. Banks were foreign to some of our young people and quite frankly, many older adults as well. I felt it was necessary for us to uplift communities of color in terms of their knowledge of the use of credit and finance.

So I think that financial literacy courses for young people will help them as they go on to become adults, particularly in buying cars. I cannot begin to look at the bad contracts that some of our young people get into when they wanna buy a car. And all they know is they want a car, but some of the deals they enter into will have them paying for that car for five or six years. When they finish paying for that car, the car has no value on the market. So I think that is why we need to do those things. 

And that’s just a beginning step in terms of wealth disparity. I am a big, big proponent of helping working class families become homeowners. If one generation in the family can acquire a home, it is setting a foundation for subsequent generations in the family. We have a first time home buyers program that I’m very proud of. And, your FICO score doesn’t have to be 800. We work with financing institutions so that we can provide mortgages to families that  aren’t making six figures a year. We provide a $10,000 down payment towards the purchase of the home. And we are able to give people mortgages at two and a half to 3 percent interest.

I know that all throughout our region of unscrupulous subprime lenders who recruited people, they doctored up their financial documents to make them qualify for mortgages with traditional institutions that put many families of color into bankruptcy, ruining their credit for years to come. So we’re trying to move families away from that and show them a pathway to home ownership that too begins to set the stage for closing the gap of intergenerational disparity in wealth.

Q. How successful have you been in legislating these initiatives?

Extremely successful. Through legislation, we created the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority. It Identified 66 communities in New Jersey that are under capitalized, and the state, through legislation, put up an investment of money into our redevelopment authority. Now, we can use that money to engage in capital investment in underserved communities. It’s very, very successful. We have other programs, for instance, the neighborhood revitalization tax credit program, again, that was created through legislation.

And you always hear about tax credits for big corporations. Well, what about tax credits for neighborhood based entities? In our Neighborhood Preservation Program, financial institutions can make contributions into our fund.They get a tax credit for the amount of money they put in our fund, and we use that money to fund applications that are coming into us from neighborhood based entities.

It might be an African American chamber of commerce that partners up with some small mom and pop stores in a designated targeted neighborhood. The plan might be the revitalization of housing, or the improvement of storefronts, the expansion of commercial corridors. the affordable housing trust fund that was created through legislation whenever a commercial developer in New Jersey builds. And, you know, when you see corporations come into a community and they build their massive corporate headquarters and that kind of thing, anyone who commercially builds in New Jersey, a percentage of the tax credit that they get for that goes into the affordable housing trust fund.

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