By: Derrick Z. Jackson
May 18, 2010
Gains elsewhere belie a wealth gap for black families
ON THE SURFACE, the American Dream for African-Americans has risen on a steady slope right into the White House. Not only did the United States elect its first black president in 2008, that was also the same year, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, that the percentage of African-Americans who live in metropolitan-area suburbs crossed the 50 percent mark. ``Within metropolitan areas,'' the report said, ``the 2000s indicate that the nation is well on its way toward achieving greater city-suburban racial and ethnic integration.''
By 2007, white families had a median value of $100,000 in financial instruments, such as retirement accounts, pension funds, stocks, bonds, and CDs. But the median value of African-American family financial holdings grew to only $5,000. Thus, the gap grew from $20,000 in 1984 to $95,000 in 2007. The study said the gap in 1984 amounted to a couple years of public college tuition. Today, the gap would fund ``full tuition at a four-year public university for two children, plus tuition at a public medical school.''
The gap is so huge that white middle-income families far outpace high-income African-American families. High-income African-Americans have a wealth of $18,000, barely more than for middle-income African-Americans. The respective median wealth of high-income and middle-income white households are $240,000 and $74,000.
``It wasn't just surprising, it was shocking,'' said study co-author Thomas Shapiro. That says a lot coming from him, a long-time researcher on racial wealth gaps and co-author of the award-winning 1995 book, ``Black Wealth, White Wealth.'' He said the new data is poignant because it follows the same set of families over 23 years. Previous reports on wealth gaps were derived from statistical ``snapshots'' from single points in time. ``We were taken aback because we assumed that whatever baseline a particular family started from, things are going to naturally get better for them,'' Shapiro said. ``But for African-American families, it didn't.''
Shapiro has interviews planned over the next two years to find out why. The data belie the stereotype that African-Americans are less wise with their money, since savings rates of black and white households are similar by income. While the study does not look at home values, the asset gap is probably embedded in America's housing and lending structure, which still rejects African-American households at higher rates than similar-earning white households for housing and home equity loans. That disproportionately forces black families into more onerous financial arrangements. In a domino effect, such families may have to take on higher debt or pay more out of pocket for education. Other factors may include a stronger need to help out extended family.
``It is not that wealth has not accumulated for African-American families,'' Shapiro said, ``What we're showing is that along the way, they have to spend it.''
Shapiro said the gap is so wide that the government has to help narrow it. He pointed out that, according to the Pew Economic Mobility Project, the vast majority of federal deductions and benefits to enhance upward mobility ended up in the hands of the wealthiest Americans. For instance, between 72 percent and 98 percent of deductions for retirement savings, health insurance, home mortgages, self-employed health insurance, and preferential rates on capital gains in 2006 went to the top 20 percent of income-earning Americans.
``We need a national portfolio shift in that investment,'' Shapiro said. ``Right now, we have a broken chain of achievement. African-Americans are achieving. But the payoff that gets passed on to the next generation is not the same.'' For too many achieving families, the American Dream is still a restless night.