In rough economic times, black Americans hold on to their optimism

By Michelle Singletary
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 5:54 PM

When asked recently how they feel about their future, 85 percent of blacks said they are optimistic, with 65 percent indicating they specifically feel secure about their financial situation, according to a new poll conducted by The Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University.

Fifty-six percent of blacks, compared with 44 percent of whites, said the current economic situation is not causing stress in their lives.

The confidence level of blacks in the race and recession survey is in stark contrast to the depressing economic data showing that the economic crisis is still plaguing the African American community.

The black unemployment rate is 15.7 percent compared with 9 percent for the country overall. More than half of older blacks (59.1 percent) depend on Social Security for more than 80 percent of their family income, as compared with 46 percent of whites, according to the eighth annual "State of the Dream" report from the Boston-based nonprofit United for a Fair Economy.

That nonpartisan group also pointed out that four decades after the civil rights movement, blacks still earn only 57 cents for each dollar of white median family income. Blacks hold only 10 cents of net wealth for every dollar that whites hold. Blacks are almost three times as likely as whites to have zero or negative net worth.

In the event of a job loss, 16.4 percent of white households wouldn't have enough net worth to live for three months at the poverty level, while 41.7 percent of blacks are in that position.

The foreclosure crisis has disproportionately impacted black homeowners. Using government and industry data, the Center for Responsible Lending estimated that between 2007 and 2009 nearly 8 percent of recent African American borrowers lost their homes to foreclosures, compared with 4.5 percent of whites, and more than one in five black homeowners is in imminent danger of foreclosure. Although the majority of families who have lost homes are non-Hispanic whites, the housing crisis has resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth from communities of color, the center concluded. From 2009 to 2012, those living near a foreclosed property in African American and Latino communities will have seen their combined home values drop by more than $350 billion.

"As the foreclosure crisis threatens the financial stability and mobility of families across the country, it will be particularly devastating to African American and Latino families, who already lag their white counterparts in terms of income, wealth and educational attainment," researchers for the CRL wrote.

Summarizing the economic situation of African Americans, one of my Washington Post colleagues recently asked in his column: "Where do we go from here, black America?"

He suggested that blacks need to wise up or move to integrated neighborhoods.

Or maybe we continue what we've been doing, even as we still experience employment and wage discrimination, lack of access to affordable health care, and predatory practices by unscrupulous people in the financial industry.

We bail out family and friends. We open our own businesses. We find inspiration not in a net worth statement but in our faith that one day we will have economic equality.

In the Post-Kaiser-Harvard poll, 60 percent of black respondents said that during the past year, they or another family member living in their household had lent money to family or friends to help them with expenses. I point this statistic out because much is made of the fact that blacks don't invest as much as whites. But dig deeper and you'll find that often they don't have as much to invest because they're helping extended-family members.

Blacks are increasingly creating their own employment opportunities. From 2002 to 2007, the number of black-owned businesses grew by 60.5 percent to 1.9 million, more than triple the national rate of 18 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

In 1988, Jesse Jackson's rousing speech to the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta highlighted the resilience of a people who have had to endure decades of discrimination. "Suffering breeds character, character breeds faith," Jackson said. "In the end, faith will not disappoint."

When asked how large a role religion or faith in God plays in helping them get through tough financial times, 91 percent of blacks said an important role, the Post-Kaiser-Harvard survey found.

Over the course of the next year, 62 percent of blacks said they think their family's financial situation will improve.

"Keep hope alive," Jackson said. "Keep hope alive! Keep hope alive!"

In the black community, despite being battered by the latest recession, hope is still alive.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail: singletarym@washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible. Please also note that comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.

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