The Recession's Racial Slant

By 2031, the downturn will have decreased the wealth of the median black household by almost $100,000.

Eric Thayer / Reuters

The recession, while painful for everyone, was especially disastrous for black Americans.

Now a report from the ACLU says that black families will continue to suffer the effects of this disproportionately for decades to come: By 2031, white household wealth will be 31 percent below what it would’ve been had the recession never happened, according to the report. For black households, wealth will be 40 percent lower, which will leave black families about $98,000 poorer than if the recession hadn’t taken place.

This is  particularly worrying because black households have always trailed significantly behind their white counterparts when it comes to wealth accumulation, and recession expanded that gap. In 2013, the net worth of white households was 13 times greater than that of black households, the largest the gap has been since 1989, according to Pew Research. Wealth often determines not only how well families can provide for themselves when it comes to basics like food and shelter, but it is a safety net for emergencies and helps to set up future generations for education, home ownership, and other opportunities that improve people’s lives.

A big part of the reason that the recession hit black Americans so hard was that it gutted home values, and home ownership is a much more significant part of the group’s overall wealth.

Between 2007 and 2009, home equity for white Americans decreased by about 9 percent; for black Americans the decrease was 12 percent.

In order to illustrate the importance of home equity to the wealth of black households, the ACLU compared total wealth for median black and white households in 2007 with and without factoring in home equity. Prior to the crash, the median wealth for a white household excluding a home was $92,950. For blacks that figure was $14,200. When factoring in home equity, the wealth of black households grew more than four-and-a-half times, to $63,060. For white households factoring in home equity helped wealth figures grow by only about two-and-a-half times to 244,000.

But it’s not just the loss of home equity that caused these outsized losses for black households. The study also points to predatory loans that put owners into homes with high-interest mortgages and unaffordable balloon payment structures—where they then defaulted as home values collapsed—a practice that was disproportionately perpetrated against the poor and communities of color. Even for upper-income black households, subprime financing was still much more common than it was among low-income white households. The ACLU points to a report from the Department of Treasury which found that black families living in upper-income neighborhoods were two times more likely than white households in lower-income neighborhoods to have refinanced their homes with subprime loans. The report also notes that black and Latino households were nearly 50 percent more likely to face foreclosure than their white counterparts.

These problems have not changed since the recession, and homeownership in America is deeply uneven. The gap between homeownership rates of white and black Americans has remained virtually unchanged for more than 100 years. According to a 2014 report from Zillow, black Americans make up only 3 percent of conventional mortgage applications, the lowest rate of any racial group, and blacks also face the highest denial rate, about 25 percent versus only 10 percent for white applicants. And as recently as May of this year, instances of racist mortgage policies, such as redlining, which deny minorities access to the housing market, have come to light. In a largest redlining settlement in its history, the Department of Housing and Urban Development ordered a Wisconsin-based bank to pay $200 million after the lender refused loans to qualified black and Hispanic clients. With limited access to loans, black families are often left to rent, or opt for less favorable mortgage options, that increase the likelihood of financial hardship, especially when recessions hit.

Losses from homes that are underwater or were foreclosed upon have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for black families. For instance, black Americans saw larger declines in retirement savings than other groups in the years following the recession. The ACLU report suggests that this may be because they raided their accounts in order to cope with more severe losses and higher interest rates than their non-black counterparts. The wide-reaching and long-lasting financial trauma is especially harmful for black Americans who not only have lower wealth levels to begin with, but higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of income, rendering the chance of recovery all too slim, even as white Americans start to get back on their feet.