DAVID GREENE, Host:
You know the old saying: The rich get richer. Well, here's a troubling caveat: Those getting richer are also disproportionately white. Blacks and also Hispanics are falling further behind. Researchers say that wealth gap will widen even more unless something breaks the cycle. NPR's Pam Fessler has our second report on closing the economic divide.
PAM FESSLER: Kindergartners in San Francisco are getting something new this fall besides a backpack and pencils: Their own college savings account.
JOSE CISNEROS: It's all about building aspirations in that child's mind.
FESSLER: City Treasurer Jose Cisneros says the city will deposit $50 in each account - 100 for those who get free and reduced-price lunches. Local nonprofits will match parents' contributions up to another $200. Modest amounts, but Cisneros says in a city where many public school children are poor, it's more the message than the money.
CISNEROS: When a child grows up and sees, oh, look at this: concrete evidence, a college savings account, my name on it - that must mean I'm I going. And we wanted to bring that kind of success to San Francisco.
TATIANA SEGENTHALER: So, basically, what we're going to do in this exercise is on the first table, number one...
FESSLER: In the city's financial district, Tatiana Segenthaler stands in front of a class. She's teaching several low-income adults how to calculate their debt-to-income ratio. They have to take this financial management course to get a matched savings account with a nonprofit called EARN.
SEGENTHALER: On the bottom, you're going to write your total monthly income. And on the last part...
FESSLER: These two programs are part of an effort nationwide to narrow what's often called the racial wealth gap. The Pew Research Center found recently that the median white household has net assets worth about 20 times that of the typical black or Hispanic family - assets such as housing, savings and investments, minus any debt. Ben Mangan, who runs a nonprofit group EARN, says the gap itself is only making the problem worse.
BEN MANGAN: The fact is, communities of color have less of the dollars across the generations. So, they're at a disadvantage in their ability to invest in the things that would allow them to get ahead.
FESSLER: Things such as a college education, a business or a home. So his group - as well as the city of San Francisco, the federal government and others - are trying to do what they can to turn the tide, first of all, by encouraging more low-income families to save.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, hi.
HELENA EDWARDS: Come in. Come in.
FESSLER: Helena Edwards greets her half-sister and her two children. They've just arrived at Edwards's three-bedroom condo in the Bayview section of San Francisco.
EDWARDS: What was he eating?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FESSLER: Edwards bought this place about a year ago, after she, her partner, their daughter, a niece and a nephew were about to be thrown into the streets.
EDWARDS: The apartment we was living at, the landlord went into foreclosure, and he didn't tell us.
FESSLER: First, Edwards was able to get the eviction delayed. Then, with the help of EARN, she started a matched-savings account for a down-payment on a home. She also got financial advice. Edwards grew up in foster care. No one really showed her how to handle money, let alone how to buy a house.
EDWARDS: Well, that was stuff that I never knew about. Never. I don't even know anybody who owned a house, but one person.
FESSLER: She learned how to have money automatically withheld from her paycheck and put into a savings account, and then she got her favorite tip of all.
EDWARDS: It is called the credit card condom.
FESSLER: A credit card condom to help control debt.
EDWARDS: It's a little envelope you put over your credit card, and you write your goal. And every time you use that credit card, you've got to pull it out of that sleeve. So, you got to read: Do I need this, or do I need to save for a house?
FESSLER: Now that she's got her house, Edwards says she can focus on other things, such as finishing her college education. Tom Shapiro of Brandeis University says families that participate in these individual development accounts, as they're called, have shown promising results.
TOM SHAPIRO: Their foreclosure rates have been much lower. Their savings are much higher. Indicators around their children's education are much better. But we're talking about maybe thousands of families, not even tens of thousands in a state.
FESSLER: And there are millions who need help. These programs are also expensive. San Francisco's Kindergarten to College accounts will cost the city about a half million dollars a year. Shapiro says it will take a lot more than that to narrow a gap that's so firmly entrenched. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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