NEW YORK - Democratic heavyweights - from Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton - joined the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson here Wednesday to push for broader economic opportunity for minorities.
"If the challenge our country faced in the 20th century was the universalization of freedom" such as the expansion of voting, education, and other rights, Mr. Summers said, "the challenge we face in the 21st century is to make economic opportunity universal, to make access to capital universal. There is no greater challenge."
Such remarks were echoed by many business and political leaders at the third annual Wall Street Project Conference hosted by Rev. Jackson's Rainbow/Push Coalition. The event puts high-profile pressure on financial services executives to hire more minorities, diversify their boards, and award more contracts to businesses owned by minorities.
Blacks and others have benefited from the boost to the overall economy by Clinton administration economic policies, Mr. Summers said, but "even with the strongest economy in the world, there will still be millions of people who are left behind if we don't do the things that we as a country" must.
Those actions include providing access to basic banking services for the 10% to 20% of Americans who lack accounts, he said. Mr. Summers praised the more than 300 banks that have agreed to offer low-cost accounts established by the government last year to enable people to receive federal benefits payments electronically instead of by check.
The administration, he said, will work this year with Congress to expand the uses of these accounts.
For instance, earned-income tax credits - which President Clinton on Wednesday proposed expanding by $2 billion annually over 10 years - could be directly deposited into these electronic transfer accounts, according to the Treasury Department. An estimated 19 million lower-income families would get the tax credit.
Mr. Summers added that the President, who is scheduled to speak here Thursday, would announce more initiatives to expand financial incentives to promote economic development.
Ms. Clinton, clearly stumping in her race to win a U.S. Senate seat from New York, strongly defended the Community Reinvestment Act, which Rev. Jackson's organization took credit for preserving during the battle over financial reform legislation last year.
"The CRA was seen as a social engineering tool that had no place in the marketplace," Ms. Clinton said before the friendly audience that packed a Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers ballroom. "It is a valuable tool that I will stand firmly behind Rev. Jackson, Secretary Summers, and others to protect."
In a written message to conference attendees, Rev. Jackson repeated a call he made late last year for a "multitrillion-dollar" community reinvestment commitment from the banking industry. Besides lending, he wrote, this should include hiring minority advertising agencies, accounting firms, lawyers, and other contractors.