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Study on Savings By Blacks and Whites Reveals Shades of Gray

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, October 21, 2007

For 10 years, Ariel Mutual Funds and Charles Schwab have issued an annual report on the saving and investing habits of middle- and upper-income blacks.

The survey throws a spotlight on the progress of black money-management skills -- or lack of progress. It also compares the investing behavior of blacks and whites.

Like many others, I've often found reason to comment on the results of the surveys. But now I wonder about the value of comparing the two groups. What exactly do we learn that can help change decades of economic differences? Do these surveys just perpetuate the notion that blacks aren't taking care of business?

In a special "black paper" marking the 10th anniversary of their survey, Ariel and Schwab came to a sober conclusion. "For middle-class African-Americans," the report said, "the march toward financial security has been an uphill journey marked by half steps, pauses and, for some, retreat. . . . The results consistently show that blacks save less than whites of similar income levels and are less comfortable with stock investing, which impedes wealth-building across generations and contributes to an impending retirement crisis in the African-American community."

This year's Ariel-Schwab Black Investor Survey found that blacks had median investments of $48,000, compared with $100,000 for whites. The survey looks at blacks and whites who earn more than $50,000 annually.

When Schwab and the Chicago-based Ariel, a black-run mutual fund company, first teamed in 1998, 57 percent of blacks and 81 percent of whites said they owned individual stocks or stock mutual funds.

A decade later, that percentage still stands at 57 percent for blacks and has dropped to 76 percent for whites.

For the first time, Ariel and Schwab looked at middle- and upper-income black and white retirees. The survey found that retired blacks had a median invested savings of $73,000, compared with $210,000 for whites.

One question in the special report stopped me short.

The companies put it this way: "How can we foster a cultural shift toward wealth-building that will lead to greater economic opportunities for future generations of African-Americans?"

Really, is it true that culturally, blacks don't want to build wealth?

Is it a black thing not to believe in investing? Or might it be that their money is being used elsewhere, or that blacks choose other ways to generate income in retirement?

Ariel and Schwab's surveys suggest it's not just investing laziness or fear of the stock market that accounts for the percentage difference in total amount invested for retirement.

In the 1999 survey, Ariel and Schwab found that African American household incomes must stretch further to support more people, including more school-aged children and extended family members.

In that year's survey, 27 percent of black respondents said they were financially supporting friends or family beyond those living in their own home. That's compared with 12 percent of white households. That percentage was consistent in subsequent surveys.

In the 2006 survey, a higher percentage of blacks said they were taking care of adult children or aging parents.

That year's survey also found that blacks who are concerned about saving for their children's educations or worried about caring for elderly parents are considerably less likely than whites to be saving even $100 per month for retirement.

In this year's survey, black respondents were again more likely than whites not to be investing because of concerns about paying for education and for day-to-day expenses.

Lost in the headlines is this fact gleaned from the survey: A larger percentage of middle-class blacks than whites work for employers such as the government that tend to provide traditional pensions plans.

In last year's investor survey, three times as many African Americans as whites (29 percent compared with 10 percent) said they planned to start a business after they retire. Wouldn't that provide them with needed retirement income?

A higher percentage of blacks than whites own real estate other than their home (42 percent compared with 33 percent), and of these, a greater share of blacks (58 percent compared with 48 percent) say they expect these investments to help fund retirement.

When we look at these surveys, we have to ask who is paying for them. Ariel and Schwab are investment companies. Of course they want to see more people invest. That translates into more business for them.

Still, I believe the overall message from the two companies is valid. Investing is important and should be a key component of a diversified retirement portfolio. It is for me.

What concerns me is the portrayal of blacks as culturally inept at understanding the importance of building wealth for retirement. But as Ariel and Schwab write in the report, "While whites have saved considerably more than blacks, the harsh reality is they, too, are underinvested and ill-prepared for retirement."

Perhaps it's time to stop the race comparisons. Maybe we can learn more and significantly help people increase their retirement investments by focusing on the choices individuals make, and the circumstances that compel those choices, without regard to the color of their skin.

¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.She also has a new personal finance call-in show that airs Sundays on XM Satellite Radio, Channel 169 "The Power," at 8 to 10 p.m.

¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

¿ By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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