Oct 3, 2018

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Anne E. Price on Racial Wealth Equity

by | Oct 3, 2018

To view the slides from Anne Price’s presentation, please click here 

Despite the ups and downs of the economy, one thing has remained stubbornly consistent over the last half-century or so: people of color in the U.S. financially struggle more than their White peers.

For instance, while education levels of Black women are rapidly rising, they’re still the lowest-paid group in the country. But some of the most striking disparities between people of color and Whites can be found in the wealth divide – the net worth of family assets minus their debts. Case in point: the average White family holds 12 times the wealth of a Black or Latino family.

In her keynote address at Colorado Center Law on Law and Policy’s Fifth Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Anne E. Price discussed the factors that created and widened the racial wealth divide, debunked preconceptions about why the divide exists and offered solutions for reducing and ultimately eliminating such disparities.

Price is the President of the Insight Center for Community and Economic Development in Oakland, Calif., a national research and economic justice organization that unearths and addresses the root causes of economic exclusion and racial inequity.

Her Sept. 28 presentation at CCLP’s annual breakfast, “What We Get Wrong About Racial Wealth Equity and How to Get It Right,” explored racial wealth equity with data, analysis and personal insights gleaned from Price’s many years of research and supporting social change on the issue.

Though much of the policy discussion on poverty and equity has focused on income and education in recent years, Price maintained that wealth is the foundation of economic security.

“Income can change on the dime, but wealth changes over generations,” she said. “Wealth is a nest egg to draw on in hard times, setbacks or catastrophe… And it can shape our life over our lives for the next generation. Wealth gives us freedom, choice and agency.”

Unfortunately, the wealth barriers to people of color were set a long time ago and haven’t been rectified since. She pointed out that the Social Security Act –credited for building older American’s financial security – explicitly excluded domestic and agricultural workers. Meanwhile, banks and mortgage agencies refused to grant loans to Black families under the G.I. Bill – which is credited with building America’s middle class after World War II.

“One thing we know is when we talk about the middle class — particularly the Black middle class – is there has never truly been a Black middle class,” she said.

In illustrating how African Americans ended up on the wrong side of a divide that shouldn’t exist in the first place, Price cited the story of her distant cousin, James A. Parsons. A scientist, inventor and university professor born in 1900, Parsons’ research with rust-resistant metals and iron alloys is credited with leading to the development of stainless steel. Yet, despite his impressive accomplishments, he never had wealth that he could pass along to his family. One reason is because in the neighborhood in which Parsons lived in Dayton, Ohio home values are low and remain by today’s standards.

“A home is most Americans’ most valuable asset,” she said. “But because of segregation and home equity values, Blacks and other groups tend to have less equity in their homes.”

Throughout her presentation, Price showed statistics demonstrating what little progress has been made in closing the wealth divide over the years.

“This is deeply structural, deeply historical and has nothing to do with individuals’ behaviors and decisions about making ‘a bad financial choice,’” Price said. Unfortunately, many of today’s policies addressing disparities and poverty reduction are predicated on such assumptions, Price said.

While it will take a long time and much effort to lift the barriers keeping communities of color from accessing wealth, Price said that changing the narrative of how people view wealth equity and poverty could make a difference in the long-term.

“Narratives are really a way we understand and make sense of the world,” she said. “Most Americans believe that your ability to work is tied to you being a full person.” Unfortunately, many of the preconceptions (such as who deserves and doesn’t “deserve” benefits or human services) are still tightly tied to race, Price said. She noted that more than 30 percent of Republican and Democratic voters still believe that people of color are somehow “sub-human.”

“This is not about conservatives, liberals, Republicans or Democrats. This is across the board,” she said. “We need to invest in underlying values and ideas beneath our issues … We won’t have the power and tools to change the way we think about wealth and equity unless we change the mental models that govern how people think.”

In doing so, Price encouraged advocacy organizations to join forces and collaborate on changing narratives in order to build public will for ideas that would level the playing field for communities of color and others who haven’t been able to pursue the “American dream.”

“Imagine if entire coalitions working on homelessness or wealth inequality – no matter what the issue – used the same frames and common language and tried to actually embed that in everything they do?” she asked the audience.

Along with changing the false narrative, Price encouraged participants to “think big” on solutions for narrowing the wealth gap.  A proponent of young-adult trust or “baby bonds” as a fiscally viable approach to help seed security for coming generations, she envisions a future where every child can access a trust of about $20,000 when they come of age. She estimates that such a one-time wealth payment could be implemented at a cost of less than $80 billion – far less than the $3.6 trillion in tax cuts recently approved by the House of Representatives.

She acknowledges that American’s sense of pragmatism might get in the way of such big ideas. “I think the idea and the fear we have on big ideas goes back to our sense of austerity: that we don’t have enough. And we DO have enough.”

Though the gaps in income and wealth between Whites and communities of color might seem insurmountable in today’s political climate, Price remains optimistic.

“I feel hopeful about our future because so much is happening on the ground that gives me hope that this is something that could actually be spread across our states and in our country,” she said in closing.

-by Bob Mook

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