05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Health Care Passed, Now What About "Wealth" Care?

My last piece here discussed Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox. She is part of an elite and growing sisterhood of successful, very high profile African-American women. Think TV mogul Oprah Winfrey. America's top doctor, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. Valerie Jarrett, the president's right hand. And, of course, First Lady Michelle Obama.

We know that women like these and many others are making inroads and moving into powerful leadership roles. And even in lower stratospheres, black women are finishing college, rising in corporate America, and starting businesses in ever greater numbers.

But even as we celebrate, we must not forget that along with these highly visible role models, millions of others remain below the radar struggling just to get by.

New research on women and wealth lays out the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots in the starkest of terms and the bleakest of numbers. Last week, NPR's "The Takeaway" directed my attention to the study, "Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth, and America's Future," conducted by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, and asked me to comment. Despite years of examining these issues and looking at this kind of research I was shocked.

Excluding vehicles, single black women have a median wealth of $100. Hispanic women do a little better at $120. To put it bluntly, the average black woman has only 100 bucks to her name.

Compare this to the median wealth of single white women: $41,500. This is not a typo. Single black and Hispanic women have a tiny fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by white women. (For the record, single black, Hispanic and white men an average net worth of $7,900, $9,730 and $43,800 respectively.)

Marriage definitely helps. Married or cohabiting black couples have a median wealth of $31,500 and the number drops to $18,000 for Hispanic partners. Compare that to $167,500 for white couples. Divorced or widowed women do better than those who have never married. A never married woman of color in this country has a net worth of zero.

These numbers are outrageous. But where's the outrage? When I went through my roster of newspapers and websites last week after the study was released, I saw plenty about Tiger Woods, Sandra Bullock's marriage, and, of course, health care reform. But the fact that most women of color can't take a sick day or have a major appliance repaired without going into debt -- I didn't find anything on this.

Let me be clear: Our low levels of wealth don't mean we're slacking off. Women of color are working hard for the paycheck. But wealth isn't the same as income. As the authors of the study explain it, income refers to the amount of money you receive during a period of time, like a month or year. For most people, it's the paycheck, but also includes child support, interest on savings, welfare payments and Social Security benefits. Wealth, or net worth, refers to the total value of assets minus debts. Assets refer to money in checking accounts, stocks or bonds, real estate, businesses owned. Debts are student loans, home mortgages and money owed to credit card companies.

A tangle of reasons have kept net worth low for women of color. First and foremost, it's an issue of long-term, entrenched, discrimination on two fronts -- race and gender.

We also lack generational wealth--wills, estates and other assets that are passed down. We get pride, love, support and much more from those who came before us, but often not much in the way of money or property. Many of us are "firsts"--the first in our families to go to college, secure a good job, own a home, start a business or speak English -- so our parents often don't have much to leave us. Or they have debt that becomes ours.

Plus, as a race, African-Americans don't have a long legacy of wealth or even income. Our fore-mothers and fore-fathers didn't come over on the Mayflower; we came on those other kinds of ships. The vast majority of our ancestors earned no money for their brutally hard labor over hundreds of years of slavery. Between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, African-Americans worked another century under a separate and unequal system. And the playing field for women and people of color remains uneven.

In the here and now, the housing meltdown hit people of color hard. We also buy homes in communities where the resale value isn't as high as in other, more gentrified areas. So even when we are able to buy homes, we don't make as much money when we sell them.

At work, women of color tend to have jobs in service industries, education and health care. No one's talking about stock options or maybe not 401Ks. Those stuck in lower-ranked jobs, can barely maintain financial footing, much less bulk up the saving account or buy a home, especially in today's economy.

The Lifting as We Climb study also notes that all women with children experience a "motherhood wealth penalty." But it's worse for women of color, who are more likely than white women or men to be single parents. The average net worth of single black and Hispanic women with children under age 18 is $0, compared to $7,970 for white women. In contrast, the average single white man raising young children is worth $56,100.

The bottom line is the majority of women of color in this country are living paycheck to paycheck with no safety net. Most black and Hispanic women -- and the children and loved ones we take care of -- are one check stub away from financial disaster.

At the same time, women of color are holding up the economy. We have long been and will continue to be the backbone of the American workforce. And we have millions of small businesses that keep communities surviving and thriving.

However, we aren't getting enough opportunities for education, development and advancement. There's no government intervention that will insure that we receive a pension when the time comes. And there's no helping hand that will pull us out from under the mortgage mess. Nobody is coming to our aid; no one's even talking about the problem.

This isn't about handouts or welfare, so Tea Partiers, don't go there. A scenario in which a large percent of the labor pool is barely hanging on has the power to break America's back. And with no way out, another generation will take this wealth gap with them into the future and will continue to live on the fringe.

We need real solutions. We must educate women of color on how to build wealth. And this means more than nagging about the importance of opening a savings account, or lecturing about spending too much at the beauty salon. Each and every solution must be realistic and textured and acknowledge the fact that we are doing the best we can while working like crazy, raising children, and caring for and supporting loved ones.

At the very minimum, it's time to talk about the problem. Even as all of us climb, we must remember to lift.

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