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'Marketplace' Report: Black Economic Progress

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'Marketplace' Report: Black Economic Progress

Race

'Marketplace' Report: Black Economic Progress

'Marketplace' Report: Black Economic Progress

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Research suggests African-Americans have not made big economic strides since the civil rights era of the '60s and '70s. Disparities in average income and average net worth with whites remain significant. Hear Steve Tripoli of Marketplace.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY, and on this Martin Luther King Day, we've asked MARKETPLACE for a kind of a report card on the economic progress of African-Americans. So Steve Tripoli joins us from MARKETPLACE. Steve, welcome back, and it's nearly four decades since Dr. King died. As a group, how have black Americans done, economically, in those years?

STEVE TRIPOLI: Well, Alex, the best answer is that a significant group have advanced, but also that a significant group has slid backward. The black middle class has expanded, and for many African-Americans, the education gap that helps a middle class expand has closed or narrowed. But I suspect a lot of Americans would find the overall statistics discouraging.

CHADWICK: So two big measures of economic progress: income and wealth. Have African-Americans managed to narrow the income gap?

TRIPOLI: Yes. The short answer is yes, but again, there's a significant hitch. One group that has fully closed the wage gap is college-educated black women. They earn as much as college-educated white women now. And a new reports says that all working black women, including those who are aren't college educated, are earning about 88 percent of what white women earn. That's as of the year 2000, and that's up from 82 percent shortly after Dr. King died.

For men, it's not so good. The report says black men were recently earning 70 percent of what white men earn, and that's up from 60 percent in 1970. But the problem there, is that the statistic measures what working men earn, and that doesn't count that black male unemployment and incarceration are both way up since 1970. So here's researcher Petra Todd from the University of Pennsylvania.

Ms. PETRA TODD (Researcher, University of Pennsylvania): So if you ignore that population, then it looks as if wages are converging because the lowest wage-earners are dropping out of the labor force. So the convergence is actually not as encouraging as it would seem, just looking at wage statistics.

TRIPOLI: You know, Alex, Professor Todd says if you average the absence of income in with so many black men, then the overall male wage disparity is almost where it was before the civil rights movement began.

CHADWICK: Steve, how about wealth - a measure, not of what you're earning, but of what you've got. How about there?

TRIPOLI: Well, the numbers are not so good there, either. The Urban League says the average net worth of African-American families is just over $6,000. that's about a tenth the average net worth of white families. Black home ownership is up, and that's an encouraging future wealth indicator, but it's still only 70 percent the rate of white home ownership.

CHADWICK: So maybe the real question is why do the gaps persist?

TRIPOLI: Well, you know, Alex, there's controversy over that. The opinions revolve around everything from the roles of racism to family breakup. But I think most everyone can agree that education plays a big role, as it does globally now.

African-American families made big economic strides during the '60s and '70s, but since then, their relative lack of education has hurt, because the kinds of jobs that African-Americans tend to hold are those that are most impacted by stagnating wages and by the global premium on skills. So some progress, yes, but some backsliding, as well.

By the way, Alex, coming up later today on MARKETPLACE, we'll examine why the super-fast Autobahn highways of Germany may be hitting their speed limits for the first time.

CHADWICK: Thank you, Steve Tripoli of the public radio daily business show MARKETPLACE, produced by American Public Media.

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