Consider the contretemps a microcosm for the radical rethink many of us are having in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd protests, about the roles race, luck and individual initiative play in our lives. Many are also questioning previously held assumptions about personal finance, government help and who needs it in our society.
The latest bit of evidence comes courtesy of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which released a poll this week revealing that 9 out of 10 people believe unemployment insurance needs to be reformed. This might be because, as they also discovered, an equal number of Democrats and Republicans likely applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March, with about half still waiting for an initial payment in mid-May.
On one hand, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Within a matter of weeks, we went from record employment levels to unemployment figures not seen since the height of the Great Depression. “It’s clear this crisis is impacting many millions of people who haven’t faced serious financial strain in the past decade,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “When that happens, people take a hard look at government programs and how they should be structured.”
Unlike during the Great Recession, it’s all but impossible to even try to place blame on the economic victims. They are not facing financial trouble because they bought a house they could not afford or spent too much money on coffee or avocado toast. Their financial lives were scrambled by a global pandemic.
But the Bipartisan Policy Center’s work revealed that African Americans were more likely to lose employment as a result of the crisis — in fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, black women suffered the largest job losses of any group. And sadly, there is much evidence to show that the traditional American antipathy toward generous social welfare benefits is rooted not in our can-do, self-help beliefs, but in our attitudes toward race.
Americans think more African Americans receive government benefits than actually do. At the same time, many middle class and upper-middle class Americans — more likely to be white — live in denial about just how much help they actually receive, both from their families and the government. As the Atlantic noted a few years ago, the more homogeneous the state, the more generous the social safety nets tends to be. In other words, the more minorities living in a state, the harder it often is to access government aid.
We here in the United States are told there is no financial obstacle we can’t overcome if we work hard enough. But this is not true for everyone — especially not for African Americans, who are, as the New York Times pointed out this week, far, far behind white Americans when it comes to personal finances and economics. They receive lower pay, are less likely to own homes, more likely to both possess student debt and to default on it, and leave smaller — if any — estates to their heirs. Here’s how this plays out practically: as the Boston Globe reported in 2017, blacks from nonimmigrant backgrounds in Boston have a net worth of $8. Whites enjoy one of $247,000.
This isn’t a financial literacy problem. It’s the result of long-standing and ongoing racial discrimination. And perhaps it’s not our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps ideology — what I like to call the First National Church of Self-Help — that causes us to support less comprehensive government benefits. Instead, that messaging thrives because it is a way to justify the obscene privilege of a few.
That’s not to say people can’t use financial advice. But those suggestions need to complement more proactive steps, such as demanding greater social safety net supports and talking openly about the long-term financial effects of unequal treatment as well as how to end it. Maybe the next FinCon conference can take that conversation on.
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