Community organizer Wintana Melekin was grabbing a soda in late June at a coffee shop near her office when she heard Neel Kashkari, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, had just been in.
Seeing her chance, she dashed out the door after Kashkari, caught up and asked if he would meet with her organization, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, to discuss racial and economic disparities in the Twin Cities.
He agreed, and to confirm that he meant it, retweeted Melekin’s tweet saying he was willing to meet.
On Wednesday, the meeting happened. Kashkari sat down with about a dozen people at NOC’s offices in north Minneapolis and committed to an ongoing collaboration between the Minneapolis Fed and some of the state’s most outspoken critics of a status quo in which blacks are not enjoying the benefits of economic growth.
“Some of the racial disparities are a crisis, and we need to treat them like a crisis,” Kashkari said. “One of the things I learned in 2008 is you don’t tackle a crisis with incremental solutions. You tackle a crisis with overwhelming force, and so if this is a crisis, and I think certainly parts of this are, then we need to bring overwhelming force.”
Kashkari, who became president of the Minneapolis Fed at the start of the year, is a former investment banker and Treasury official in the George W. Bush administration. He was appointed the first chief of the bank bailout program known as TARP at the end of the Bush term and start of President Obama’s administration.
Though his everyday work is at the very top of the national economy, Kashkari has a record of trying to understand its depths. As a candidate for governor in California two years ago, Kashkari spent a week living on the streets of Fresno, a midsize city, with just $40. He tried unsuccessfully to find work during that week and wound up in a homeless shelter.
It’s not clear how Kashkari and the nation’s central bank can directly address the challenges that were brought up at Wednesday’s meeting. The Fed controls interest rates, with the goal of creating maximum employment, but monetary policy can’t be targeted at segments of the population or certain states or cities. As Kashkari pointed out, black unemployment in the United States stubbornly tracks at roughly twice the level of white unemployment.
“There’s something structural in the U.S. economy, in good times and bad, that black unemployment is almost always twice as high as white unemployment,” Kashkari said.
He said driving unemployment downward will help everyone, and he is for low interest rates as long as they aren’t driving inflation upward. But he has not heard a satisfying answer for why the disparity in Minnesota is worse than in most places, though he committed to working with NOC to understand why it is.
From NOC’s perspective, the meeting with Kashkari was historic. Never before has a Fed president met face to face with its members in Minneapolis. As local ambassadors for the national Fed Up campaign, the organization has a fresh interest in the Fed and has taken the position that interest rates should remain low.
For Anthony Newby, the head of the organization, the meeting was a good starting point. Kashkari’s comment that the economic plight of black Minnesotans is a crisis requiring a response of “overwhelming force” was particularly satisfying.
“It sets the tone for how the Fed could, in unusual and unorthodox ways, use its power and position to solve some of these equity problems,” Newby said.
Kashkari agreed to spend a day with Rosheeda Credit, a mother of five at the meeting who said she struggles to pay for rent and child care. “The crime rate is high here, and the rent is high here and we’re not getting paid enough to work here,” Credit said.
He heard from Tenice Hodges, a former teacher who moved back to Minneapolis two months ago to help her sister’s family. She is living out of her car until she can get a teaching job because she can’t afford the city’s high rents with her restaurant wages.
“We are struggling out here,” Hodges said. “Yes, I’m employed. I work every day. But can I go out and get an apartment right now? No. I don’t have $1,100 by myself, or $2,200 for a deposit.”
Kashkari committed to looking closely at the résumés of people of color that NOC submitted for various board appointments at the Minneapolis Fed. He also said he will work with NOC on research and meet with people from the organization again in the future. He also committed to attending a workshop put on by groups affiliated with NOC at the Jackson Hole Economic Policy Symposium, an annual conference in Wyoming where central bankers from around the world gather.
Kashkari, who has drawn national attention by calling for a transformative solution to the problem of banks that are too big to fail, explained that his role as a regional Fed president is to understand the problems people face in his district. While the tools of monetary policy are limited, and much of the heavy lifting that causes social change much happen in Congress, he said it is important for him to meet with people as he did Wednesday to understand their concerns.
“I appreciate that you think it is business as usual,” Newby told Kashkari. “I don’t think it is business as usual.”