STEVE INSKEEP, host:
OK, it's normal in this country that there is a huge gap between the wealth of white families and the wealth of African Americans and Hispanics, but the recent recession made that a lot worse. That's according to a new study out today which says the decline in the housing market is the main culprit. NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER: The numbers are pretty astounding. The average wealth of a white family in 2009 was 20 times greater than that of the average black family, and 18 times greater than the average Hispanic family. That's the largest gap since the government began collecting the data a quarter of a century ago.
Mr. RAKESH KOCHHAR (Author of study, Pew Research Center): And twice the size of those levels that prevailed before the great recession.
FESSLER: Rakesh Kochhar with the Pew Research Center is one of the authors of the report. He says white households went into the recession in a much stronger position, and as a result, were better able to weather the storm. One reason, real estate. Minority families had most of their wealth invested in their homes, so when the housing bubble burst, they took a bigger hit.
Mr. KOCHHAR: Especially Hispanics, for example. Sixty-six percent of their net worth derives from home equity. And they are concentrated, geographically, in parts of the country such as California, Arizona, Florida, and Nevada.
FESSLER: ...where the housing downturn was especially severe. The result is that the average Hispanic family lost two-thirds of their wealth between 2005 and 2009. Black families lost more than half of theirs.
White households, on the other hand, were more diversified. They had a greater share of their money in stocks, mutual funds, and pensions. They lost wealth, but only about 16 percent on average.
But there were other factors at work, too.
Ms. HELENA EDWARDS: The apartment we was living at, the landlord went into foreclosure and he didn't tell us.
FESSLER: Two years ago, Helena Edwards of San Francisco found herself, her partner, and three children facing eviction. She was lucky. With the help of a non-profit, she's since been able to buy a home, but Edwards says it's not easy balancing all of her bills. Her partner lost his job, and she had her pay and health benefits cut back because of the economic downturn.
Ms. EDWARDS: Am I able to save $5 a month? Not really, no more. Do I still live paycheck to paycheck with the house? I still live paycheck to paycheck with the house.
FESSLER: Rakesh Kochhar, of Pew, says Hispanics and African-Americans, like Edwards, are far more likely to be unemployed, and that too has put a strain on assets. It means tapping into savings and pension funds, or going into debt just to make ends meet.
As a result, about a third of black and Hispanic households had zero wealth or were in debt in 2009, the end of the recession. That's twice the level of white families.
Tom Shapiro of Brandeis University, who has studied the racial wealth gap for years, says he's concerned about the long-term impact. He thinks the gap will likely grow even more, unless the economy turns around soon.
Mr. TOM SHAPIRO (Brandeis University): If a family doesn't have enough for a safety net for itself, it can't think about moving forward or moving ahead.
FESSLER: And that means fewer resources for things like education, or buying a house or starting a business. Shapiro says that only puts the average minority family further behind, and less able to weather the next economic storm.
It's a cycle Helena Edwards hopes to break by scraping together the money for her mortgage payments. She wants to pass her house on to her daughter, so she has the head start Edwards never had.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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