Black Middle Class Economically Vulnerable

Dawn Turner Rice, Chicago Tribune, October 7, 2012


For months, the presidential candidates have been trying to court the middle class, extending offers of tax cuts, lower gas prices and better schools. The message: America does well when the middle class does well. The corollary: We feel your pain.

But much less attention has been given to the black middle class, which since the recession and slow recovery has suffered massive decreases in wealth and high rates of home foreclosures. Blacks overall are experiencing a 13.4 percent unemployment rate, according to figures released Friday, much higher than the national rate of 7.8 percent.

The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project recently released a report projecting that 68 percent of African-Americans reared in the middle of the wealth ladder will not do as well as the previous generation.

In August, the National Urban League’s State of Black America 2012 report found that nearly all the economic gains that the black middle class made during the last 30 years have been wiped out by the economic downturn.

“This is a very dire situation,” said Valerie Rawlston Wilson, an economist with the National Urban League Policy Institute. “Even for blacks who have college degrees, we’ve seen a doubling of their unemployment (rate) between 2007 and 2010.”


From 2005 to 2009, the average black household’s wealth fell by more than half, to $5,677, while white household wealth fell 16 percent to $113,149, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2009, 24 percent of black households had no major assets other than a vehicle, compared with 6 percent of their white counterparts.

“For every $20 whites have in wealth, blacks have just $1,” said Paul Taylor, director of Pew’s Social and Demographic Trends project. “And in many cases, households get a boost because they inherit wealth from parents and grandparents. Blacks for most of history haven’t been able to accumulate that type of wealth.”


Saving money for the future is especially difficult for blacks living paycheck to paycheck. The median annual household income for blacks declined by 11.1 percent (from $36,567 to $32,498) from June 2009 to June 2012, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Sentier Research. The decline for whites was 5.2 percent and for Hispanics 4.1 percent. Both groups started with higher incomes than blacks.

“A generation of wealth and assets are evaporating, and the presidential candidates aren’t making a peep about it,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, 40, a doctoral candidate in African-American studies at Northwestern. “We’re talking about historic changes in manufacturing, and these are systemic changes in the economy and in the midst of this, people are being left behind.”


Historically, many blacks have made it into the middle class via public-sector and union jobs. But since 2008, the public sector has shed about 600,000 positions.


After the housing bubble burst in 2006, everyone was affected, but blacks were hit particularly hard. About one-quarter of blacks have lost their homes or are seriously delinquent and at risk of losing them, according to the North Carolina-based Center for Responsible Lending.

The center also found that African-American borrowers with good credit scores received subprime, predatory loans associated with high foreclosure rates three times as often as white borrowers with comparable credit scores.

Earlier this year, the Woodstock Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit research group focused on fair lending issues, found that although 25 percent of homes in the Chicago area were underwater, about 40 percent of homes in predominantly black neighborhoods were.

The average equity for mortgaged properties in communities that are more than 90 percent white is about $108,000. In communities that are 80 percent or more black, the average is $6,800.

Spencer Cowan, Woodstock’s vice president, said the institute didn’t break the research down by income range.

“But the disparity is so great that it would almost be impossible for even a black middle-class neighborhood to have significantly more equity, so that the wealth disparity wouldn’t be on that order or magnitude,” said Cowan.

Home values and equity are a huge deal because homes accounts for about 60 percent of black wealth.

“For whites at the upper-income levels, their home is a component of their wealth, but they may have a 401(k) and other assets,” Cowan said. “But for most black middle-class folk and those at the lower rungs, it’s all about their homes.”



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