Closing the Black-White Wealth Gap

Even if you have a high income, you may lag far behind your white friends when it comes to wealth accumulation. Here's how to close the gap.

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Are you living paycheck to paycheck, counting down the days until your next direct deposit? Do you find yourself in the same basic financial state you were in five years ago, with a slightly better salary and slightly nicer stuff?

If so, you're not alone. Recent research confirms that high-earning African-American households lag far behind white households -- even middle-income ones -- when it comes to building wealth. Wealth (simply defined as what you own minus what you owe) is the key to transforming your financial life -- so how did African Americans fall so far behind?

"The Racial Wealth Gap Increases Four Fold," a policy brief by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy (IASP) and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, documents the income and spending habits of individual families from various racial backgrounds. The data, compiled over more than two decades, reveal a disturbing trend: From 1984 to 2007, the wealth gap between white and African-American households increased dramatically, leaping from a $20,000 difference in 1984 to within spitting range of $100,000.

Most puzzling was the divide between middle-income white households and upper-income black households: While white families with average incomes managed to amass $74,000 in wealth over the twenty-year period, high-earning black families could boast a median wealth of only $18,000 by 2007.

Researchers looked at the ways that middle-class and wealthy families benefited from current financial systems, and concluded that "tax deductions for home mortgages, retirement accounts, and college savings all disproportionately benefit higher income families. At the same time, evidence from multiple sources demonstrates the powerful role of persistent discrimination in housing, credit, and labor markets." Even as African Americans entered higher income brackets, we still fell behind, thanks to entrenched policies of racism.

So how does this disparity play out in our lives? The mortgage crisis is the best-known example of how discriminatory policies have affected African-American and Latino families' accumulation of wealth. Homeownership is often called the cornerstone of wealth building, and for good reason: A home is the largest asset that many of us will ever purchase, and real estate has traditionally appreciated in value. The real estate boom, however, upended the way that Americans saw homeownership and encouraged many of us to treat our home like a cash cow, tapping equity to fund purchases while overextending ourselves to find other property to "flip."

In a 2007 piece for the NAACP aptly titled "Financial Apartheid," Nikitra S. Bailey of the Center for Responsible Lending painstakingly documented how the subprime mortgage crisis and the return of predatory lending practices affected communities of color.

Heavily marketed products known as adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) and hybrid adjustable rate mortgages (HARMs) were foisted on consumers so eager to purchase their piece of the American dream that they didn't notice they were agreeing to major hikes in interest a few years down the road. More and more lenders also began instituting unscrupulous practices like adding penalties for pre-payment of loans, refinancing home loans with no benefit to the borrower, taking kickbacks on more expensive loans, and ignoring financial documents that indicated the borrower might not be able to repay the loan.

The most malicious of these policies, however, was steering, which pushed buyers into riskier, higher-priced loans even when they qualified for a more manageable prime rate. Bailey presented strong evidence that steering was linked in many ways to racism, since blacks and Latinos were "twice as likely to receive high cost home mortgages as whites with similar incomes."

Organizations like the Insight Center and United for a Fair Economy have identified specific policy initiatives that lawmakers can use to close the racial wealth gap from an institutional standpoint, but there are steps we can take individually to help close that gap and put future generations on an equal footing.