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What makes you sick? Look to history of racial bias for some answers

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CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION
Charlotte’s health gap can be traced to the early 20th century with the advent of repressive social and economic policies that deprived Blacks from accessing wealth-building assets that left them without economic mobility.

This article, the first in a series, was produced as a project for the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2020 National Fellowship.

If you’re born poor and Black in Charlotte, statistics suggest you’ll die that way, too.
It wasn’t always that way, though.

In 1900, Charlotte was far from an urban powerhouse with a population of 18,091 and an economy reliant on agriculture and textiles.  Neighborhoods weren’t segregated by race although it was customary in most southern communities by that time, but change was coming. As Jim Crow laws took root at the dawn of the 20th century and gained momentum over the intervening decades, it created a gap in health access and outcomes that left Black Charlotte in a yawning chasm compared to whites.

“A lot of the tough stuff is falling on people of color, and that comes out of a history of systemic racism” that gained momentum at the dawn of the 20th century, said Tom Hanchett, historian-in-residence at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. “If you asked me how the South got segregated, I would have said it’s always been segregated or after the Civil War or after Reconstruction in the 1870s. No, actually around 1900 there were big stresses on the system.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and revealed the width of gulf between races on many fronts, said Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris, who leads the county’s coronavirus response. The crisis has laid bare longstanding racial disparities and neglect in American life that haven’t been addressed at scale.

“The fact that we are now talking about place matters where you were born, where you live, where you were brought up really can make a difference, not just in your life in general but specifically in yourself,” she said. “So, I’m just really encouraged by that. …I want to make sure that everybody understands that all of the other outcomes directly impact health, so where do you live, how you live, what’s your housing situation, what kind of education you have access to, what kind of jobs you have access to.”

White supremacy campaigns at the end of the 19th century, in which terrorists overthrew the elected government of Wilmington in 1898 and intimidated Blacks here, changed the landscape of economic growth for African Americans by forcing them into a separate and unequal arrangement.

“Segregation is the result of choices that policymakers and other folks made over time, kind of layered on top of each other,” Hanchett said. “So, what we’re dealing with right now is a playing field that we didn’t create. We get to play and push in and change and make it better but understanding how the field got set up is really powerful.”

Charlotte customs and legislation widened the race gap. Discriminatory laws effectively left Blacks with limited access to education, housing and health care. Exclusionary practices like redlining Black neighborhoods and homeowner covenants that locked them out of white communities widened the economic gap by stripping Blacks of the means of producing generational wealth. As a reaction, the all-Black, work class Brooklyn neighborhood was created. By the end of the 1960s, it fell victim to redlining and lack of investment, then ultimately urban renewal, a politically expedient program to tear down substandard housing often owned by absentee landlords.

The legacy of the arbitrary redlining African Americans as bad credit risks is evident in modern homeownership rates: 42% of Blacks in the Charlotte region own a house compared to 69% of whites. Nationally, 47% of Blacks are homeowners as opposed to 76% of whites. As of 2017, Black Mecklenburg residents were twice as likely to be denied home loans as whites – 11.9% versus 5.6%.

“Brooklyn came into being as a response to that awful period of disfranchisement around 1900 when African Americans were literally displaced from moving into new suburbs,” Hanchett said. “All of the suburbs around the center city around 1900 had restrictive covenants in their deeds – Plaza Midwood, where I live, Dilworth, Myers Park, Villa Heights, all of those said, ‘members are Caucasian race only.’

“And so African Americans tend to move in and kind of clump together with a number of neighborhoods, the greatest of the neighborhoods was Brooklyn, a city within a city.”

Those economic pressures show up in health care as well. The United States has world-class medicine, but it is far from universal, leaving the free market to decide the depth of insurance coverage for individuals. For the poor, it’s hit or miss. According to Census data, 52,373 Black residents, or 18.04% of the entire Black population – equal to the entire city of Kannapolis – live in poverty. By comparison, 23,919 whites are similarly situated, or 6.89% of all in that ethnic group.

Government is of limited help, especially in health care. Fifteen percent of Mecklenburg County residents receive Medicaid or N.C. Public Choice insurance for low-income individuals, but an estimated 500,000 North Carolinians are uninsured, often limiting them to emergency room treatment that raises insurance premiums for everyone else. The Republican-dominated General Assembly has blocked Medicaid expansion for years, but three in four residents support extending the federal insurance program according to a recent Care4Carolina poll. North Carolina is one of 12 states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid, but 64% of Republicans, 76% of independents and 83% of Democrats support expansion.

Medicaid expansion, health care advocates say, would create 40,000 jobs at no cost to the state, add $4 billion to the economy, and pump funds into rural hospitals that lack the funding of facilities in urban communities.

In order to close the gaps in health care and outcomes, advocates say it’ll take an intentional societal effort to remove barriers to access the tools of economic growth and racial equality.

“To me, courage is the most important word because it will take courage within our system. It will take courage within our communities to challenge the systemic problems that we know are there,” said Dr. Jerome Williams, senior vice president for consumer engagement at Novant Health. “These problems are not new. They’re rooted in intentional decisions and policies and behaviors and to be quite honest with you, the system is working just the way set up to work.”

Next: Barriers to health care.

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Is There a Difference Between No Credit and Bad Credit?

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The short answer is yes, and understanding the difference could be instrumental in getting better credit.

No credit and bad credit often get grouped together. It’s understandable why, as they both sound similar enough. And if you have either, the next step forward is to focus on improving your credit.

The two situations aren’t the same, though. It’s important to know the difference, because the right way to build your credit often depends on whether you have no credit history or bad credit.

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The difference between no credit and bad credit

Having no credit means that there’s not enough information on your credit file to calculate a credit score for you. It’s also known as being credit invisible. Sadly, this is an issue that affects millions of Americans.

There aren’t any problems on your credit file; the credit bureaus just don’t have enough data on you. That means when a lender or any other third party checks your credit, there’s nothing to go on.

Meanwhile, “bad credit” is a common term used to describe a low credit score. That low score is because of negative items on your credit file, such as not paying your credit card bill.

When you have no credit, the solution is to build your credit. When you have a low credit score, the solution is to rebuild your credit. Now, let’s look at how you can do each one.

How to build credit for the first time

Here’s the simplest way to build credit:

  • Open a credit card.
  • Use the credit card for at least one purchase per month.
  • Always pay your credit card bill on time and in full.

It’s that easy; that’s all you need to do to get a good credit score. When you use a credit card and pay the bill on time, you establish a positive payment history. That’s the biggest credit scoring criteria.

The tricky part when you have no credit is finding a credit card you can qualify for. Secured credit cards are one of the most common options for consumers in this situation. You pay a security deposit for this type of card, so it’s possible to open a secured card even if you have no credit.

If you’re in college, credit cards for students are available. These are often an option for applicants without any credit history.

How to rebuild a low credit score

It’s a little more complicated to rebuild your credit. First, you need to find out what negative items are affecting your credit score. Here’s how to start:

  • Use an online credit score tool to check your score and learn about any items damaging your credit. If you have a credit card, there may be a credit score tool in your online account. If not, there are plenty of free ways to get your credit score.
  • Request your credit report from the three consumer credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). You can pull a free annual credit report from each bureau, and through April 2022, you can get free weekly credit reports. Your credit report will show you exactly what’s affecting your credit.

Once you know what’s affecting your credit, you can work on correcting it. Below are a few of the most common issues and how to fix them.

Problems with your payment history

This includes anything related to not paying a bill on time, from late payments to having accounts go to collections.

The first step is catching up on your payments. If you can’t pay in full, contact your creditors and see if you can set up a payment plan with them. They may be willing to work with you if that means you’ll be making regular payments.

Next is rebuilding your payment history. The easiest option is to use a credit card at least once per month and pay in full by the due date. Why do you need to use a credit card? Credit card companies report on-time payments to the credit bureaus, which helps your credit score. With other types of bills, your on-time payments typically don’t get reported to the credit bureaus. That means you may not be able to improve your payment history with rent, utilities, or other monthly bills.

If you already have credit cards, you can continue using them to rebuild your payment history. If you don’t, look for secured credit cards and apply for one you like.

Using too much of your credit

A big factor in your credit score is your credit utilization ratio — your credit card balances divided by your credit limits. If this number gets too high, it can lower your credit score. The standard recommendation is a credit utilization ratio of under 30%.

Let’s say you have one credit card with a $4,000 balance and a $5,000 credit limit. That would put your credit utilization at 80% ($4,000 divided by $5,000 is 80%), a very high number that would decrease your credit score.

Fortunately, only your current credit utilization matters. Once you pay down your credit card balance, your credit score will bounce back.

Errors on your credit history

A low credit score may be due to an error and not any action on your part. This is why it’s so important to pull your credit reports from each credit bureau. By reviewing those, you can see if there are any mistakes.

If there are errors on your credit report, you can go to the credit bureau’s website to dispute them online and get them removed.

A low credit score and a nonexistent credit score are both things you can change. After you determine exactly what the issue is, you’ll be able to choose the best solution to fix it.

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‘There is no new normal’: Worcester small business owner pivoted during COVID-19 and expects only more change after pandemic

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It took about eight minutes for the bank to reject Natalie Rodriguez’s application for a loan through the Small Business Administration.

Rodriguez opened Nuestra, a Puerto Rican inspired restaurant in Worcester, in January of 2020. When COVID-19 arrived months later she discovered Nuestra wasn’t eligible for the federal or state funding that thousands of other establishments received.

To qualify, restaurants were required to show payroll and salary for years before 2020. Those figures didn’t exist for a restaurant that weren’t open in 2019.

“[I was] determined and knew that ‘no’ is not an OK answer,” Rodriguez said. “A door may close but you may need to kick down another door.”

Rodriguez then applied for conventional loans only to be led to more closed doors. Less than 10 minutes after applying for an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, she received notice that her poor credit score resulted in her application being denied.

Rodriguez used the dead end with the SBA to create a new path for herself and Nuestra.

She not only learned how to improve her credit but wanted to ensure others didn’t have to follow her journey as an entrepreneur.

Rodriguez extended the “Nuestra” brand to include financial advising. She started Nuestra Financial in April of 2020.

“Now I’m helping others. I’ve been able to restore my credit,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been able to help others restore their credit and be able to help them make a business themselves if they so choose. I’ve been able to survive.”

Without grants and other funding, Rodriguez managed to keep her restaurant open through funds generated from Nuestra Financial.

“I was very quiet about it in the beginning. I didn’t want people to be like, ‘Oh look at this girl, she just opened a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic,’ and talk smack,” Rodriguez said. “About a month or two later, a light bulb hit and I was like, nobody pays my bills but me. I needed to mind my own business and not worry about what other people thought.”

In creating Nuestra Financial, Rodriguez said she’s helped Worcester residents restore their credit and purchase new vehicles and homes.

Rodriguez said financial literacy is rarely taught to children in school and wasn’t something she learned. When a situation arises like a rejection notice for an economic disaster loan, many don’t know how to respond or where to find answers.

Rodriguez said she’s helped young and old people, along with those who have bad credit or no credit.

“We lack the confidence, including myself, because we weren’t taught,” Rodriguez said. “So if you don’t know something, you weren’t taught, you’re not going to be confident about it.”

Coming out of the pandemic, Rodriguez remains confident about both her businesses. Nuestra, the restaurant, while closed for daily service continues to provide catering services. Rodriguez is still preparing what the future holds for the restaurant but plans to announce an update soon.

As masks start to become less a part of daily routines, Rodriguez, as a small business owner, doesn’t envision many differences from this year to last.

So many aspects of life remain uncertain from rising food costs to a potential third booster for vaccines and whether the country will ever reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

The pandemic arrived with Rodriguez immediately pivoting. As it approaches its potential end, Rodriguez will continue to do what helped her to navigate it.

“I feel like there is no new normal just yet,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’re all just trying to adjust and pivot at the same time and getting creative. I think it’s where we all are.”

Related Content:

Owner of Worcester’s Nuestra restaurant, closing due to COVID impact, has something she’d like to say to Gov. Baker

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Columbus Mattress Wholesale moves to newer, larger Gahanna store

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More than four years back, Cathryn Clark’s boyfriend, Christopher Robbins, was on the hunt for a new mattress. He just couldn’t find one at an affordable  price. 

Clark, 29, and Robbins, 34, who are now engaged, were living in Franklinton, where they still live today.

They had no experience owning or operating a small business; Robbins worked as a retail assistant for SAS Retail Services while Clark worked as the communications director for two Methodist churches. 

But in 2017, Robbins, with Clark at his side, took the leap and opened Columbus Mattress Wholesale on the West Side, with the goal of  helping low-income consumers secure mattresses and other bedtime products.  

“We really wanted to bring a store to people that, you know, they weren’t paying an arm and leg, but they still could get a good night’s sleep,” Clark said.

Customers at Columbus Mattress Wholesale can pay cash or credit, for example, but the business also works with financing companies that serve people without credit scores, with bad credit or who are lower income. 

Last month, the business made a big move. It expanded from its original location on Harrisburg Pike to a store double the size at 435 Agler Road in Gahanna.

Clark said she and Robbins saw a need in the broader area, with many of their customers coming from outside the Hilltop, such as Linden.

Nestled between Dollar Tree and the Ohio BMV in Gahanna, the new storefront opened Memorial Day weekend and sells mattresses, bed bases, bed frames and pillows. Mattress prices range from under $100 to more than $1,000, depending on the size and brand, which includes some well-known names such as Serta, Beautyrest and Casper.

Clark said while she and Robbins originally sold solely Ohio-based brands, they’ve branched out to national brands as business has grown.

Columbus Mattress Wholesale also offers free same-day delivery on most orders from customers living in Columbus. 

Clark does a little bit of everything for the business, from running communications, to working on the sales floor, to managing the sales team, to ordering what they sell. 

She said a big mission for herself and Robbins, beyond doing business, is aiding the community.

“We’ve seen a lot of people struggle,” Clark said.

Clark said she and Robbins work to mentor other people who are hoping to open or currently own a small business. She added that the store starts employees at $17 per hour.

She and Robbins haven’t decided yet what they will do with the original location — which is currently closed — but said they might shift it into an accessory store.

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@SarahEDon

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