King’s unfinished work

Michelle Singletary
Columnist August 13, 2013

On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. led a March on Washington that focused in part on economic equality.

“The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” King said that day.

Michelle Singletary writes the nationally syndicated personal finance column, “The Color of Money.” View Archive

Fifty years later, the income and wealth gap for minorities is still wide and troubling. The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to the Pew Research Center.

And the Great Recession didn’t help an already bad situation. The average net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution chain increased 28 percent during the first two years of the recovery from the downturn, compared with a 4 percent drop for households in the lower 93 percent, according to Pew’s analysis of data from the Census Bureau.

Another Pew report found that the decline in housing prices had a much greater impact on the net worth of minorities relative to that of whites, because housing assumes a larger share of their portfolios.

The Urban Institute’s Opportunity and Ownership Project recently issued a report that similarly examined the chasm that separates the haves and the have-nots.

In 2010, the average income for whites was twice that of blacks and Hispanics, $89,000 compared with $46,000. Whites on average had six times the wealth of blacks and Hispanics, $632,000 compared with $103,000, according to the Urban Institute.

But it’s the wealth gap that the authors of the report rightly focus on. Over the past 30 years, Americans in the top 20 percent saw their average wealth increase by nearly 120 percent, while families with wealth figures in the middle quintile saw growth of only 13 percent. The folks in the bottom 20 percent saw their net worth drop below zero, meaning their debts exceeded their assets.

“When it comes to economic gaps between whites and communities of color in the United States, income inequality tells part of the story,” the authors of the institute’s report wrote. “But let’s not forget about wealth. Wealth isn’t just money in the bank, it’s insurance against tough times, tuition to get a better education and a better job, savings to retire on, and a springboard into the middle class. In short, wealth translates into opportunity.”

The great wealth gap helps explain “why many middle-income blacks and Hispanics haven’t seen much improvement in their relative economic status and, in fact, are at greater risk of sliding backwards,” the report says.

Poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics seriously exceed the national average, according to the National Poverty Center. In 2010, 27.4 percent of blacks and 26.6 percent of Hispanics were poor, compared with 9.9 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 12.1 percent of Asians. About 38 percent of black children and 35 percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, compared with about 12 percent of white children.

“In hindsight, the organizers of the march were correct: Achieving rights without fully obtaining the resources to actualize them is only a partial victory. In this 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we can best pay tribute to the march and all that it stood for by recommitting to achieving its unfinished goals,” wrote Algernon Austin, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s Program on Race, Ethnicity and the Economy. The institute has issued a series of reports examining what it would take to achieve each of the goals of the 1963 March on Washington. Go to www.unfinishedmarch.com to read the essays.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson has also stressed the need to “revive the movement to address this unfinished agenda.”

In looking at other economic measures, Jackson wrote in a recent Chicago Sun-Times commentary that African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as are whites. Affordable housing is still an issue, as is adequate public transportation that would help people get to jobs.

“We cannot afford to write off a majority of the next generation and still prosper as a great nation,” Jackson wrote.

When I write about the economic state of minorities, I brace myself for the racist, vitriolic comments that follow. Highlighting economic inequalities isn’t about asking for handouts. It’s about finding ways to give people a hand up so that they can become self-sufficient. When the financial lives of the less fortunate are lifted, we all are lifted.

As King said in his “I Have a Dream” speech that summer day 50 years ago, we all have to realize that our destinies are tied together. “We cannot walk alone,” he said.

Readers may write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or singletarym@washpost.
com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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