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The Change That Hasn't Come

By Michelle Singletary
Sunday, November 9, 2008

It's been a long, long time coming.

"Because of what we did on this date, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America," President-elect Barack Obama said in his victory speech.

As an African American mother of three children, I've been sporadically crying ever since Election night. When I tell my children they can work hard and aspire to any job in this country, that statement is finally, finally true.

But my joy is muted because there's still some change that hasn't come.

"This is our time to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids, to restore prosperity . . . to reclaim the American dream," Obama said.

For large pockets of America's population, prosperity is still an American dream deferred.

Obama will confront the enormous challenge of leading the country out of what is surely a recession. But the road out should be shared by all.

Income for all U.S. households has stagnated. But the numbers are worse for Hispanics and African Americans. "They are likely to suffer first and to suffer more in an economy that does not produce widely shared prosperity," wrote Amanda Logan and Tim Westrich in an updated version of "The State of Minorities: How Are Minorities Faring in the Economy?" published by the Center for American Progress.

And how are minorities faring?

Not well.

From income to unemployment to health care to homeownership, Hispanics and African Americans lag significantly behind whites, according to the data compiled by the center.

From 2000 to 2007, Hispanics' median family income declined from $39,935 to $38,679, an annualized average drop of 0.5 percent. Whites' median income also decreased during this time but by only $12 (in 2007 dollars). Whites' median family income was $54,920 in 2007, 1.4 times higher than that of Hispanics.

The median income of African Americans declined by an average of 0.7 percent per year from 2000 to 2007, dropping from $35,720 in 2000 to $34,091 in 2007.

In 2007, nearly three times as many African Americans lived in poverty as did whites. Hispanics were only slightly better off than African Americans.

The unemployment rate for all Americans hit a 14-year high, rising to 6.5 percent in October, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the jobless rates for African Americans and Hispanics are worse than that. The unemployment rate for African Americans was almost double that of whites. And again, although Hispanics did somewhat better than African Americans, the jobless rate among these workers had the largest increase among all adults during the month.

The differences in health-care coverage also are stark. The percentage of Hispanics without coverage was three times that of whites in 2007, while that of African Americans' was twice as high as whites.

Almost 50 percent of African Americans and Hispanics own their homes, while 75 percent of whites do.

Although the housing market collapse has rightly reminded people not to consider their house as a cash machine, a home still remains a significant contributor to the average family's net worth. Owning a home has historically been, and probably still will be, the path to prosperity.

During the campaign, Obama was criticized as a modern-day Robin Hood who would rob the rich to give to the poor.

"My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody," Obama explained in a now infamous encounter with an Ohio plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher. "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

That statement was interpreted to mean Obama wanted to redistribute wealth.

But there's a difference between implementing tax policies and programs to make prosperity possible for everyone and pilfering the pockets of the top earners in the country.

Besides, it's going to take more than tax breaks to lift many minorities to solid middle-class status. They need better schools, job opportunities and training. They need access to affordable health care so an illness doesn't bankrupt them. We need to find a way to provide reasonably priced homes and mortgages they can afford based on their incomes.

I know there are some triflin' folks, of all races, who don't want to work hard and are happy with handouts. But that description doesn't fit the vast majority of those at the bottom. They want their own slice of the pie, earned by expanding the pie with their own hard work, not by slicing away someone else's wealth.

"Let us remember that, if this financial crisis taught us anything, it's that we cannot have a thriving Wall Street while Main Street suffers," Obama said on Election night.

Economically speaking, many minorities are not living on Main Street, but their prosperity is just as vital to ending this country's financial crisis.

With Obama's victory comes a chance to make change, "and that cannot happen if we go back to the way things were," the president-elect said.

As Sam Cooke soulfully sang so long ago for too many people, "it's been too hard living."

I believe that with President Obama, a man of color who has inspired so much hope, a change is gonna come.

· On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and athttp://www.npr.org.

· 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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