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Hard hit in recession, blacks still hopeful

By Paul Taylor,

The depth and breadth of the financial toll that the Great Recession has taken on the nation’s minorities is just now coming into full focus. On top of experiencing a well-documented spike in unemployment and housing foreclosures, the nation’s blacks and Hispanics have suffered a massive meltdown in household wealth.

Wealth is the sum of assets (house, car, stocks, 401(k) account, etc.) minus debts (mortgage, car loan, credit card debt, etc.).

From 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median household wealth fell 66 percent among Hispanics and 53 percent among blacks compared with a relatively modest 16 percent decline among whites, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new government survey data that provides the first direct evidence of these trends.

As a result of these disproportionate declines, the typical white household in 2009 had 20 times more wealth ($113,149) than the typical black household ($5,677) and 18 times more than the typical Hispanic household ($6,325).

These lopsided ratios are the largest in the quarter-century since the government first began tracking such data. They are also roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed for the two decades preceding the Great Recession.

Falling house values are the main driver of these trends. Homeowners of all races and ethnicities were affected by the residential real estate market collapse that began in 2006, but Hispanics and blacks, as a group, have been hit much harder than whites. That’s because they have relatively few financial assets. A much higher share of their wealth is in the value of their houses.

This is a story, at least in part, of good intentions gone awry. Roughly two decades ago, the nation embraced policies to expand homeownership, believing it would be good for the economy and the social fabric. A disproportionate share of the new homeowners of the 1990s and 2000s were minorities. Many bought houses at prices inflated by the residential real estate market bubble of the time. And as we all now know, many were either undercapitalized or victims of predatory lending practices — or both. When the market collapsed, it fell hardest on them.

But there is another aspect to this saga that’s almost as poignant. It’s a variation on the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog that didn’t bark. Even as their wealth has been decimated, the nation’s minorities have remained politically quiescent. No street protests. No marches on Washington. No detectable rise in racial and ethnic grievances.

Indeed, Pew Research surveys show that during the same period — from 2005 to 2009 — minorities moved ahead of whites in their measured levels of satisfaction with the state of the national economy.

How can that be? Is it that minorities are better fortified, psychologically, to endure hard times? (Certainly they’ve had more experience.) Or could it be that because so much of their loss was of relatively recently acquired “paper wealth,” it stung less?

Perhaps. But whatever one’s circumstances, the loss of wealth is a major blow. Unlike income, wealth is a stock of assets, accumulated over time, that can provide a bulwark against short-term economic setbacks; savings for a college education; security for retirement; and a nest egg for one’s children. It’s the ticket to the American dream — and it can be passed on from one generation to the next. Its loss cannot be easy for anyone to swallow.

So why the apparent cognitive dissonance? In the absence of a more plausible theory, one could do worse than consult the political calendar. According to Pew Research surveys, the period when minorities first passed whites in their measured level of satisfaction with the national economy was between 2008 and 2009. That happens to be when the nation elected and inaugurated its first nonwhite president.

Optimism among blacks and Hispanics about the nation’s economic future has fallen off since those politically heady days of 2008-09. But it remains above that of whites: In the latest Pew surveys, 40 percent of blacks say they expect the economy to improve in the next year, compared with 34 percent of Hispanics and 29 percent of whites. Pretty remarkable, given the disparate impact of the recession on these groups.

The moral of the story? When it comes to the way minorities perceive the economy these days, it may not be the economy, stupid.

Paul Taylor is executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and co-author of its recent report on the racial wealth gap.

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