It's common knowledge that, for myriad historical reasons, America's black-white wealth gap is atrocious. In 2007 white households had 15 times the total wealth of African-American households. And this year a study showed that median wealth for a single black woman is just $100; for a single white woman, that sum jumps to $41,000. Exacerbating the already precarious situation is that, in a struggling economy that has hit blacks disproportionately hard, it's unlikely these disparities are going away anytime soon.
So it may seem that the majority of African Americans can ignore this week's passage of the Wall Street reform bill. What does Wall Street reform matter if you don't own stocks or a home, and won't for the foreseeable future? In fact, though it might not look like it from afar, it matters quite a lot.
It's important for people — especially people with little to no financial literacy — to remember that another title for the financial reform bill is the The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Because while a large part of this legislation is dedicated to regulating huge banks, another major aspect of the reform is guarding America's most vulnerable consumers with the advent of the Consumer Financial Protection Board.
One of the main reasons the nation is in its current state is underhanded, expensive, predatory mortgages that were foisted upon working-class Americans, particularly women of color [PDF]. The rest is ugly history:
These loans were the equivalent of ticking time bombs in African American communities as once the loans re-set, usually with a higher monthly interest payment, many consumers found themselves with a mortgage they could no longer afford. At the end of 2009, over 40% of subprime mortgages were at risk of foreclosure, partially due to unscrupulous and irresponsible lending practices. The overall impact of tight credit and high foreclosure rates have led to a drop in homeownership rates for African Americans to 46 percent in 2009.
With the protection agency in place, foreclosure disasters like the one that befell so many African-American homeowners in the past few years should be a thing of the (very recent) past, as it will be the agency's responsibility to demand and enforce greater transparency from lenders.
Financial reform will also enable the federal government to crack down on payday loan stores for the first time in history. In California alone, citizens lose $450 million annually to payday lenders, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. Of that, $247 million comes from blacks and Latinos with problematic financial histories that only serve to be hampered more by payday lending. Because of the full-steam lobbying of the payday-loan industry, the practice — which finds the average borrower paying $800 for every $325 they take out — wasn't outlawed entirely, but it's now faced with greater oversight.
Under the proposal agreed to by [bill sponsors] Mr. Dodd and Mr. Corker, the new consumer agency could write rules for nonbank financial companies like payday lenders. It could enforce such rules against nonbank mortgage companies, mainly loan originators or servicers, but it would have to petition a body of regulators for authority over payday lenders and other nonbank financial companies. … I'd say that's pretty much the definition of toothless. They can make the rules, but they can't enforce them.
Still other questions exist about the impact financial reform can have on exorbitant hidden bank fees and overdraft charges, which it intends to cap. On MSNBC today, Richard Bove, a bank industry analyst, predicted unforeseen doom from the caps, which could make some bank customers too unprofitable for banks to continue working with them:
My guess is there will be at least 10 million people who lose their bank accounts in the United States over the next 12 months, and they will not get banking services. Which means that they will have to use payday loans, they'll have to use Western Union payment services, they'll have to use a series of other methods of handling their banking because they won't be profitable for banks and the banks won't keep them.
No good deed, as they say.
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer for The Root. Follow him on Twitter.