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The Wealth Gap—Race Defines It, But So Does Gender

| August 8, 2011

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From a recent report by the National Women's Law Center

Much has been reported on the staggering racial wealth gap in the United States, but what are the particular implications for women of color?

A core thread in the iteration of the American Dream is the idea that one need only have a strong work ethic, perseverance, and temperance to achieve great success. The crux of this national ethos insists that issues relating to class, race and gender are but non-sequiturs to achievement. In other words, you and you alone are largely responsible for your access to and maintenance of personal wealth, which is often touted as a key symbol of success.

I thought a lot about the fallacy in this particular “cultural narrative,” as PBS commentator Tricia Rose described it, when the Pew Research Center released sobering data at the end of last month revealing the racial wealth gap to be the largest since researchers began collecting such information. The stats are quite bleak. Currently, whites on average have 20 times more wealth than blacks and 18 times more wealth than Latinos. The study further states that Asian Americans experienced a drop in net worth of 54 percent between 2005 and 2009. Additionally, as of 2009: "About a quarter of all Hispanic (24 percent) and black (24 percent) households in 2009 had no assets other than a vehicle, compared with just 6 percent of white households. These percentages are little changed from 2005."

Pundits and journalists have been busy debating the larger implications of this disparity in wealth. Most notably, Melissa Harris Perry rightly placed the news within a political framework by asserting that more than just personal behavior or our national recession, public policy has historically contributed to the growing wealth disparities. "If you are shut out at the beginning," she said, speaking of African Americans, "it is nearly impossible to catch up later on." But there is a key component to the analysis of the racial wealth gap that has been largely left untouched—how women, specifically women of color, have been disproportionately affected.

As the bare bones of a job recovery manifests, men are virtually the sole benefactors of its gains. According to a recent Time Magazine article: “not only are men outpacing women in finding jobs; they're doing it in sectors that are historically female-dominated. According to Pew, employment trends have favored men in all but one of the 16 major sectors of the economy, including retail trade, education and health services.” 

For African American women and their families, the situation remains bleak. An analysis by the National Women's Law Center details how black women lost over twice as many jobs during the first two years of the recovery as black men gained, directly undermining their daily lives, much less their ability to create and maintain wealth.

As Melissa Harris Perry pointed out, such economic difference has broad implications going forward. Wealth lays a foundation, it provides infrastructure. It eases the burden on educating children, paying daily expenses, buying a home, and planning for retirement. Wealth provides access and allows choices. The chasm of wealth that overwhelmingly disadvantages women of color makes it that much harder to access the best resources and opportunities necessary to build a strong future for themselves and their children.

Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stieglitz for Vanity Fair wrote one of my favorite pieces on wealth inequality earlier this year. His essay, “Of the 1% by the 1% for the 1%,” challenges us to think about growing wealth inequality as detrimental to America’s place as a competitive superpower, arguing that the disparity in wealth and resources ranks us closer to Russia and Iran in terms of equal opportunity than to the “ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride.”

To be clear, no one doubts that the recession has been tough on most and will continue to be so at least until next year. But the incredible statistics published by the Pew Research Center point to a deeper erosion of the American Dream for far too many women of color, and consequently for us all. As talk of the debt ceiling and the 2012 election dominates the news cycle, it’s important to remember these wealth disparities have far reaching effects, weakening communities and feeding the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Public policy is essential to providing any recourse to a troubling reality that, in the long run, will affect all of us.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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