Alicia Taylor thought she and her husband, Michael, had made their family’s future fail-proof. They’d married soon after college, found good jobs in their fields, had a daughter and then a son, and bought a small starter home in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood in Durham, N.C. Their plan was to raise their children steeped in faith in God and devotion to family, enrolling them in good public schools while stashing cash for college. “We did everything we could to make sure our children’s prospects would be nothing but bright,” says Alicia. But she would soon learn that in a shrinking economy, nothing is guaranteed.
Last summer, Michael, 42, was laid off from the tech company he’d worked for since graduating from college. Just six months later Alicia, 43, lost her job as a caseworker for a home care agency. Now, as the couple struggles to hold everything together for their children, 11 and 9, Michael works to establish his own tech consulting business, while Alicia applies for jobs and slowly exhausts her unemployment insurance. There is never enough money, and she worries about falling behind on their mortgage. “I keep thinking this isn’t how it’s supposed to happen,” she admits.
In the EBONY-W.K. Kellogg Foundation Survey of the African-American Family a national sample of 1,005 African-American respondents identified job loss and financial insecurity as the No. 1 issue confronting Black families. Of course, when we consider the state of our families, we can’t help but think of the one living in the White House, something most of us never thought we’d see. Today, little African-American boys can see in President Obama a limitless horizon for themselves, and little Black girls can look at the first lady and her daughters and know that they, too, can be accomplished and celebrated. But the rush of hope and change we felt in those euphoric days after the Obamas swept into the record books did little to protect us from the realities of a faltering economy, compounded by the fact that Black families still suffer the fallout of centuries of discrimination in every area of our lives, from education to health care to criminal justice to jobs and, perhaps, most critically of late, housing.
“Housing is the basis of wealth-building in this country,” explains Lawrence H. Parks, senior VP for the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco. “The fact that Black people were mostly locked out of this wealth-creation tool, by law and by policy, until the early ’90s is a major reason why we have such a wealth gap in the Black community.” As a result, Black families’ financial cushions—the reserves of savings or inherited assets—are ever more threadbare: Blacks have just five cents in wealth for every dollar Whites possess, says Harvard University sociologist David R. Williams, Ph.D., and when you take home equity out of the mix, Blacks have just a penny in wealth for every dollar Whites possess.
It didn’t help that when homebuying credit finally began flowing our way in the wake of anti-redlining laws in the early ’90s, the industry’s long-standing bias simply morphed: More people of color were victims of predatory loans with hidden fees and higher interest rates than were Whites with less stellar credit ratings. It’s why the foreclosure crisis has hit families of color so much harder than Whites, with Blacks’ homeownership rate plummeting from a high of 49 percent in 2004 (compared to 67 percent for Whites) to 43 percent last year. Parks notes that some projections estimate Black homeownership could fall as low as 40 percent. “That would take us back to 1960s levels,” he says, “and that’s scary, because it means the gains of the last 50 years are being systematically wiped out. That’s the legacy of Jim Crow, and it’s at the core of where we find ourselves today.”
Our survey highlights other challenges facing Black families in post-recession America: Homicide is still the leading cause of death for young Black men, too many of whom live and die in neighborhoods where their dreams have been boarded up like the foreclosed homes, and gun violence and drugs proliferate. Echoing this, a shocking 44 percent of survey respondents said they had lost someone to homicide or suicide. Blacks are also 55 percent more likely than Whites to be without health insurance, which may account for survey respondents’ embrace of the Affordable Care Act, with one-third already signed up or planning to do so. And large numbers of Black children still attend schools with woefully inadequate resources.
In terms of Black employment, our poll found a jobless rate of 20 percent—significantly higher than the official 12 percent rate for Blacks, and almost three times as high as the nation’s overall rate of 7.2 percent. William E. Spriggs, Ph.D., a professor of economics at Howard University, notes that Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers don’t include those who are no longer looking for work. “Nationally, we have 2.5 unemployed workers for every job reported, so obviously there are a lot of frustrated people out there,” he says. The impact of this kind of financial insecurity on Black families cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to Black achievement. “Despite the popular narrative about Black kids dropping out of school, the truth is, if you control for poverty and family structure in a student’s background, a Black person in America is far more likely to finish high school than any other racial group in the world,” says Spriggs. Yet because a much larger proportion of African-American students lives in poverty, the U.S. Census reports the overall graduation rate for Black kids at 79 percent, compared to 83 percent for their White peers.
But if the road Black families travel is steeper and the footholds less sure, we are also resilient: Indeed, our poll found optimism among Black families at a surprising high, with 88 percent of respondents saying they are satisfied with the overall quality of their lives. “African-Americans are an optimistic people,” explains Atlanta-based life coach Valorie Burton. “Another word for optimism is faith, and as a group, we tend to be far more faith-oriented. It’s how we have weathered setbacks over time, because when you have faith, you’re going to keep trying and keep moving forward.”
Faith is certainly one ingredient that keeps Alicia pushing through each day. The other, she says, is a fierce determination to make life better for her children. “For generations, we’ve told our kids to study hard and the rest will fall into place,” she reflects. “But that’s really not enough anymore, which means we’re going to have to figure out a whole new game plan. We might be dancing back and forth across the poverty line right now, but no matter how hard things are, I still believe our children can live the dream.”
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Blacks are also 55 percent more likely than Whites to be without health insurance, which may account for survey respondents’ embrace of the Affordable Care Act