The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The covid economy is harder for Black Americans

Majority of Black Americans say they are hit hard by gas, grocery and housing prices

(Rick Bowmer/AP)

There’s a saying in my community that when America gets a cold, Blacks get pneumonia. The brutal economic fallout of the pandemic on Black Americans affirms that expression.

When there’s an economic downturn like we’re having right now, with rising inflation and dwindling buying power, Blacks get hit harder and take longer to recover. A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 1,200 Black Americans this spring finds some things never change.

Nearly 8 in 10 Black Americans say the affordability of gasoline in their community is “not so good” or “poor” (79 percent), with large majorities saying the same for the affordability of housing (75 percent) and groceries (66 percent). Although others may share concerns about rising prices, long-term data show Black households may have more difficulty weathering such cost pressures.

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That housing piece is a concern for me personally. My daughter, who graduated with a degree in early childhood and special education, just accepted a teaching position at an elementary school in Baltimore. I’m helping her look for housing in predominantly Black neighborhoods close to her school.

It’s depressing.

On her starting teacher’s salary, she will need to spend half her net monthly pay to afford a decent rental on her own without a roommate.

“Mom, I don’t want to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said as we searched for apartments online.

If she lives at home, she’ll have a long commute, but it’s increasingly looking like her most economical solution. She’s fortunate. Not everyone has the same option.

Many Americans of all races and ethnicities are suffering. Rising inflation is cutting into their ability to build a financial cushion for themselves. It’s hard to save for the inevitable financial emergency if such a high percentage of your take-home pay has to go to housing, gas, and food.

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But as hard as it is for so many, Blacks face even tougher times because of pay and employment disparities. A Pew Research Center poll of Black Americans conducted last fall found that just over a third of Black adults have an emergency fund, compared with over half of adults overall.

“The long-standing differences in economic experiences among Black Americans remain today,” wrote Khadijah Edwards, a Pew research associate focusing on race and ethnicity research.

When folks say, just shop around for better food prices, that’s not always possible. Black neighborhoods have fewer large supermarkets, often living in “food deserts.”

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Black Americans also disproportionately face food insecurity, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA says food-insecure households are uncertain or unable to get enough food to meet the needs of all their family because of insufficient funds or other resources.

USDA found that 22 percent of Black households experienced food insecurity in 2020, compared to 11 percent of all U.S. households.

In the Post-Ipsos poll, about 1 in 3 Black Americans (32 percent) say recent price increases have been a “major financial stress” on their household. This view is very similar to the general public.

Confidence in the economy is low among Black households. The poll finds that 25 percent of Black Americans rate the economy as excellent or good, down from 42 percent in early 2020.

The Post-Ipsos poll was conducted through the Ipsos KnowledgePanel from April 21 through May 2 among a random national sample of 1,248 non-Hispanic Black adults with a partially overlapping sample of 997 U.S. adults. Results among Black Americans and Americans overall have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

None of these survey results surprised me. The struggles of Black Americans were only magnified by the pandemic.

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“From Reconstruction to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans, or, really, for any American of color,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said earlier this year in remarks at the annual event honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held by the National Action Network, a civil rights organization.

All the economic news for Black Americans isn’t bad.

Sixty-one percent of Black Americans rate the availability of jobs in their community as excellent or good in the Post-Ipsos poll, although a larger majority of the general public rated the availability of jobs positively (72 percent).

A quarter of Black Americans say their financial situation has been getting better in the last few years, while 22 percent say it’s gotten worse and 52 percent say it has been staying the same. Those views are slightly more positive than the general public — 18 percent say their situation is getting better, 30 percent worse.

Why does all this matter?

Systemic racism, not $200 Air Jordans, suppresses Black wealth

The economic fallout from the pandemic has left many Americans economically vulnerable, but Black households even more so. Pre-covid, the typical White family had eight times the wealth of the typical Black family, according to the 2019 Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

In 2021, 40 percent of Black adults in a separate Fed survey said they had difficulty paying bills or were close to having difficulty, about twice the share of White adults who said the same (19 percent).

More than two years into the pandemic and with recession concerns growing, I worry that systemic issues that had already left so many Black households behind won’t get better even as the economy recovers.

Emily Guskin and Scott Clement contributed to this column.

Michelle Singletary on retirement and personal finance

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