WHEN: Today, Thursday, March 10, 2022
WHERE: CNBC’s Equity and Opportunity Forum
Following is the unofficial transcript of a CNBC interview with U.S. Treasury Counselor for Racial Equity Janis Bowdler at CNBC’s Equity and Opportunity Forum, which took place today, Thursday, March 10th. Video from the interview will be available at https://www.cnbc.com/equity-opportunity-events/.
All references must be sourced to CNBC’s Equity and Opportunity Forum.
SHARON EPPERSON: And it’s important now to get to our first interview. You know, the pandemic has shed a light on many economic barriers that still exist for underrepresented communities and the U.S. Treasury is looking to play a central role in addressing this problem by appointing its first ever Counselor for Racial Equity, Janis Bowdler. She joins us now with CNBC’s Senior Congressional Correspondent, Ylan Mui. Ylan?
YLAN MUI: Well, thank you so much, Sharon and thank you so much Janis for joining our conversation today and kicking things off. I want to start by asking you about your title, Counselor for Racial Equity. As Sharon mentioned, you’re the first person to ever have this job, ever to hold this title. What does it mean? What is your role at the department?
JANIS BOWDLER: Sure, well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you and help kick off this truly amazing lineup. I’m really grateful. And yes, first ever Counselor for Racial Equity. It’s incredibly humbling. You know, from day one, racial equity has been a priority for the Biden, Harris administration, and for good reason because the failure to invest in communities that have been underserved is money left on the table. It’s a drag on our national economy and that’s just one of the reasons why it’s so important for the Treasury Department. Secretary Yellen has been clear on this point that the economy has not worked well for communities of color for Black, Latino, AAPI and native communities. And I think we can all agree that it’s a moral issue, but it is also an economic issue. If we don’t act, we’re not going to be able to realize our shared vision of economic growth and recovery.
MUI: I feel like Janis for many years after the Great Recession, people talked about inequality in terms of wealth accumulation, how many people were being left out of the recovery. Now we’re seeing inflation as one of the key challenges of this economy and now I’m hearing folks talk about inflation inequality where the lowest income households and often, too often communities of color are feeling the brunt of higher prices more than the rest of society. What do you think about that? What are the ways that Treasury can help buffer that pain?
BOWDLER: Our goal is to create an economy where everybody can reach their full potential where everybody can live financially secure and my job at Treasury is really to leave no stone unturned to try to create that more fair economy. The way that we are going to do this really as you said is by recognizing and centering the needs of the most vulnerable, those that are at greatest risk of being left behind. And we know that Black, Latino, AAPI, native communities, also rural communities, those impacted by climate change, that’s where we see the greatest amount of risk so we have to start there. We have to be making investments around the most vulnerable and that’s what Treasury has been doing. That’s where we’re going to see the greatest return on investment.
MUI: What are the best ways that you all have found to reach out to communities that maybe have not had that relationship with the Treasury Department, with the government previously?
BOWDLER: Yeah. Yeah, I’m so glad you asked this question because I think this is one of the things that this treasury department is really doing differently thanks to the vision of Secretary Yellen. So, let me mention two things, you know, really important to designing and building a racial equity agenda is getting proximate. We have to get close to communities that are experiencing challenges. That’s where we’re going to find a lot of solutions. We just have to put the fuel behind what people know what works for their communities. So two ways that we’re doing that. First, the Treasury created an office of community engagement that is created an open door to have more transparency and create a feedback loop for community and business leaders to come in and share real time feedback on how Treasury is impacting their communities. People might not realize but the department is responsible for administering more than a trillion dollars of recovery funds to community, businesses, families that have been affected by COVID-19. So, it’s important as we do that, that we’re thinking about Black and Brown communities that we know historically have been slower to recover during times of economic downturn.
MUI: Can you tackle these initiatives with the current funding that you have, you know, I cover Congress, I know that the fight to get funding from, from lawmakers can be a challenging one and sometimes an uphill battle. Do you need money, more money in order to reach the goals that you’ve set out?
BOWDLER: Well, certainly the President has put forward an ambitious agenda in Build Back Better. I think there’s always more that we can do. But our focus right now, as I mentioned, a trillion dollars is really important and that is real relief that is flowing to families, helping them keep in stay in their homes, helping to build businesses. In fact, right now we’re in the middle of supporting states who are standing up the State Small Business Credit Initiative. That is going to provide guarantees, loan dollars, equity investments, to really fuel the growth of small businesses on the ground. And I’m really proud that there’s a special focus in that program on socially and economically disadvantaged individuals who are trying to grow and maintain their business. I think there’s real progress to be made in these programs and a lot of people don’t know that Treasury is out there working in their communities like this.
MUI: You’ve worked in the private sector now as well as in the government sector. What are the ways that the two sides can work together? What are some of the, I guess, ways that you’re reaching out to private industry to say, hey, you can be a partner in this and you can help as well?
BOWDLER: Yeah, absolutely. I mentioned all the relief dollars that we’re putting out on the street. Within that, more than $20 billion is going to community finance partners, think community banks, CDFIs, nonprofit loan funds, to fuel community projects, healthcare centers, childcare centers, affordable housing, and of course small businesses. That investment can be leveraged by the private sector and we’re hoping that they’re going to come in and align and align their investments in a way that’s going to create a force multiplier in communities that have long been starved of resources. I can’t emphasize this enough. This is where we are going to see our biggest return on investment, by directing dollars to places that have historically been underserved and we know that that includes a lot of communities of color.
MUI: What do you hear from business leaders, from CEOs or even others in Washington, when you bring this message to them? Are people prioritizing this in the same way the Treasury Department is, or do you find some skepticism about whether or not these targeted initiatives are really needed?
BOWDLER: No, I think we’re seeing a lot of receptivity. I mean, look, I think forums like this are really important as we get further and further from the racial reckoning that was inspired by the really tragic murder of George Floyd, it’s possible that people start to forget that this feeds into the rearview mirror and it takes all of us to remember that problems that are rooted in our history of structural racism and a legacy of policies that have left Black, Brown, AAPI, native communities out of policies that have built the middle class, we’re not going to change that in just a day. But it’s why it’s so important that federal agencies take on these barriers and this legacy head on and why we need the private sector to come along with us. I think that message resonates and people want to work together to make action happen.
MUI: So these are some really big goals and you’ve been in the job for five, maybe six months. What is your measure of success when you look at the end of the year or when you set those markers or milestones for yourself? How will you know if you’ve succeeded, if the department has succeeded?
BOWDLER: Like I said, the goal the north star here is to create an economy where everybody has a chance to reach their full potential and live financially secure and I think we’re going to get there when we can see more communities of color building their own businesses, when we see investment flowing into their neighborhoods. I’m really proud that part of this initiative is measuring our success and having a strong feedback loop so that we can continue to understand the extent to which we’re really reaching our goal and make changes where we need to. But at the end of the day, our measure of success is our families able to move up the economic ladder, are they able to reach their potential, are they able to live financially secure lives.
MUI: What about trust? There has been a lack of trust in Washington, a lack of trust in government, and the pandemic really exacerbated America’s view of our public institutions. How do you start to rebuild that especially with communities of color?
BOWDLER: Yeah, proximity matters. So, we can’t just confine ourselves to the four walls of our institutions or frankly to the Washington beltway. We have to get out into communities and listen to people closest to the problem. I think that’s not only how we’re going to come up with the really big solutions and the most effective solutions, it’s also how we’re going to rebuild trust. And the programs that Treasury is responsible for administering, for example, the state and local fiscal relief funds really gives states, localities, counties, a lot of flexibility to map the needs in their communities and align dollars and resources to meet those needs. I think those kinds of programs bring us a little bit closer together and help to rebuild some of that trust.
MUI: Janis Bowdler, the first Counselor for Racial Equity to the U.S. Treasury Department. Thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to us today.
BOWDLER: Absolutely, thank you for having me.