Wealth Gap Yawns--and So Do Media

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Wealth Gap Yawns--and So Do Media

Little interest in study of massive race/gender disparities

The Insight Center for Community Economic Development (3/8/10) released a stunning report about the wealth gap for women of color: Single black women have a median wealth of $100 and Hispanic women of $120--dramatically lower than white men ($43,800), white women ($41,500) or black men ($7,900).

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 Insight Center for Community Economic Development, March 2010

The median wealth for single white women in their prime working years, age 36-49, is 61 percent of the wealth of their male counterparts, who own $70,030. That's terrible, but the corresponding ratio between women and men of color is nearly off the charts, at just 0.05 percent--$5 versus $11,000. Almost half of single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative wealth. (Data was unavailable for Asian-American and Native American women.)

A racial wealth gap had been well established, as had a gender wealth gap. But the intersection of the two had never been measured, and the numbers in Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America's Future, which demonstrate the compounding effects on women of color, are jarring and powerful. Yet almost more jarring is the near-complete lack of interest on the part of corporate media. According to a search of the Nexis database, the weeks following the report's release witnessed one national television news mention, one NPR story, two opinion pieces which were republished in a few different papers, and a single newspaper report.

It's not as if the Insight Center wasn't trying; it even held a media briefing at the Capitol building in Washington followed by a day-long symposium on the issue (3/8/10). Remember Hurricane Katrina and corporate media vows to bring race and poverty back under their lens? The deafening media silence on the racial and gender wealth gap lays bare corporate media's true priorities.

While income is the most common measurement for inequality, wealth--an individual's assets minus their debts--reveals even greater disparities in the United States. While the top 1 percent received 21 percent of the income in 2006, it held over 34 percent of the wealth (UCSC.edu, 2/10). And racial disparities are drastically greater in terms of wealth than in terms of income. (See graph below.)

Wealth, Income and Race G. William Domhoff, "Wealth, Income, and Power," updated 4/10. Chart data Edward N. Wolff

Wealth can be more relevant to people's lives, too, particularly in a time of economic crisis. Not only does wealth have a lot to do with the ability to retire or support yourself in old age, people of all ages are much more likely to lose their homes or otherwise find themselves unable to support themselves or their families without savings or assets to fall back on during economic hardship. And, indeed, women of color have had the highest foreclosure rates of any group during the current recession--both as a result of their lack of wealth and their being targeted for subprime mortgages, regardless of their income level (National Council of Negro Women, 6/09).

Wealth also helps people get ahead: Home equity can be borrowed against to send children to college, for example, and wealth can be passed down through the generations to provide them with more stability, access and options. Research has found that family wealth is the biggest predictor of the future economic status of a child, giving lie to the old American "bootstraps" mythology.

Of the 600-plus U.S. newspapers in the Nexis database, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (3/9/10) was the only one to publish a news report on the study. Tim Grant's front-page piece made connections with the local situation, and pointed out that "upper-income black women [were] five times more likely to have received a high-cost mortgage than upper-income white men." A few days later, NPR Weekend Edition (3/13/10) broadcast an insightful interview with Julianne Malveaux discussing the report. (In alternative media, some of the more prominent coverage came from Latoya Peterson at the blog Racialicious--3/11-24/10--and Democracy Now!'s interview with study author Mariko Lin Chang--3/12/10.)

The Post-Gazette (3/16/10) followed up Grant's article with an editorial (also published in the co-owned Toledo Blade, 3/12/10) saying the report "should keep every American up at night." Unfortunately, the rest of the corporate media don't seem to have lost the slightest bit of sleep over it.

In fact, the majority of the corporate media coverage came from the several small papers that published syndicated columnist Bonnie Erbe (Scripps Howard, 3/17/10), who managed to minimize the racial angle of the story and flip the message of the report. The very first of the "interesting although not in any way unexpected data points" Erbe listed is "that the median amount of wealth controlled by American women is less than half the amount of median per capita wealth owned by American men." Her solution? Forget unionization and better jobs. "The best thing women can do to build wealth is to start businesses, as opposed to getting caught in time-consuming and income-limiting salaried positions."

After dispensing that less-than-helpful advice to women with no assets to speak of, Erbe wrote that the report "fails to take note of how women got themselves into the predicament where they currently find themselves," pointing a finger at "women who bear children out of wedlock before they have completed their own education" and thereby "consign those children to a cycle of poverty":

White women and women of color who are under- or uneducated and have children outside of marriage need to be given the facts before they make the decision to continue that cycle of poverty.... We need to stop them from spinning ever downward in that cycle before they launch themselves into it.

Having children out of wedlock can hardly account for the disparities; even among single women with children under the age of 18, white women have a median wealth of nearly $8,000, versus women of color's $0. And as Dalton Conley showed in his 1999 book, Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth and Social Policy in America, lack of wealth--particularly housing wealth--is a significant factor in premarital childbirth. Framing the issue as something that poor women have brought upon themselves masks the structural barriers and discrimination that need to be addressed in order to bring about real change.

In the Insight report's executive summary, in fact, a section on "Why Women of Color Have Less Wealth"--which Erbe apparently overlooked--explains the many structural inequities that are the primary cause of the wealth gap. Not only is there a sizeable income gap for women of color, they also are much less likely to get jobs that provide benefits like paid sick days, health insurance and retirement plans, all of which are critical to helping build wealth.

Another major factor is the uncompensated work that falls disproportionately on the shoulders of women, and particularly women of color--things like raising children and caregiving for elderly or otherwise incapacitated family members. That work is not only unpaid, but it doesn't count towards benefits like Social Security and unemployment insurance.

And then there's homeownership: Women of color are less likely to own homes (and therefore benefit less from related tax breaks), but when they do, they're more likely to be targeted by subprime loans regardless of their income level, which means they're paying out more in interest that could have been saved-and to top it off, residential segregation tends to make their homes gain value more slowly than homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

But Erbe's tactic of casting the blame on poor women themselves echoes a familiar media theme. In the sole national television mention of the Insight report, CNN Newsroom anchor Fredricka Whitfield (3/13/10) raised the report's findings with guest Ryan Mack, president of Optimum Capital Management, asking him how black women "recover" from that. Mack's response: "We have to start learning how to save, start learning about where to put our money at and where our values are. Spending a little bit less and trying to make sure we are squeezing that budget."

In one of USA Today's few pieces to address wealth inequality in 2009 (5/8/09), guest columnist Yolanda Young pinned the gap on black "social behavior and financial ignorance and irresponsibility," noting that it's not just Wall Street that bears responsibility for the economic crisis: "Many of us bought frivolous things that we couldn't afford."

At the Washington Post (4/15/09), a rare mention of the wealth gap came in coverage of Fed chair Ben Bernanke telling students at historically black Morehouse College that part of the cause for the racial wealth gap is a lack of "financial education." Bernanke, said the Post, pointed to minorities' use of check-cashing services when they really ought to be "in the mainstream banking system." While financial education is not an entirely negligible factor, one hopes that Morehouse students summoned more criticism of Bernanke's arguments than the Post did.

Often, though, the very concept of a wealth gap is something the media only seem to be interested in with respect to other countries. In 2009, three of the New York Times' four articles that mentioned a "wealth gap" were about China.

Tim Grant of the Post-Gazette told Extra! that he was "shocked and amazed" that his was the only paper to cover the story, even if in some ways it wasn't entirely surprising. "When it comes to issues of people at the lower end of the economic ladder, that's not an issue that gets a lot of attention," he said. "There's a general lack of interest on the part of the media about the poor, women and people of color."

Grant said that, as an African-American male who covers personal finance, he took great interest in the Insight report, which he said "gave me a whole new perspective on what women of color are dealing with." Two of the paper's top three editors are women, he added, and their strong interest in the story helped land it on the front page. It's a powerful reminder that newsroom diversity can affect editorial priorities. According to the American Society of News Editors (4/16/09), only 13 percent of newspaper newsroom employees are minorities, and only 37 percent are women. Women of color are few and far between. And supervisors are almost 90 percent white and two-thirds male. As the old saw goes, news is what happens to or near an editor.

The Post-Gazette and Toledo Blade wrote that the Insight report "shines a harsh light on something that is too often ignored. Having the unvarnished facts is the first step toward dealing with them." The rest of the corporate media seem content to continue ignoring the wealth gap for women of color and aborting the public policy discussion before it can even begin.

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

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