Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Families: Wealth in Black and White in the United States

Chris and Peter Ackerman live with their three children in a suburb of Saint Louis, Missouri. With middle-class occupations, their earnings in 2003 were over $80,000 a year. A few years prior, they were able to purchase their starter home. Both of their parents had paid for their college education, meaning they did not have student loan debt. And, Peter’s parents helped them with the down payment. When their three children were nearing school age, Chris and Peter decided to move out of their first home into the suburbs. Their first home had increased in value, and they were able to use the equity from that home to purchase their second home in the suburbs of Saint Louis. They chose to move in large part because they wanted to live in a school district with good public schools. The community they live in is very similar to their own demographic profile – nearly all white and with an average income of $60,000 to $80,000. Chris and Peter had over $100,000 in net worth in 2003, placing them above the national average. Chris and Peter have worked hard and saved and chose this neighborhood because they want to provide their children with the best possibilities they could.

Red brick house with white trim, Maple Ave.

Chris and Peter have worked hard, yet they also have benefited from their parents’ healthy economic standing. Their parents paid their college tuition, and helped them to purchase their first home. This permitted them to live without being saddled by debt and to use their economic advantages to build their own wealth.

Judith and Steve Andrews are an African-American family with a different story. Judith Andrews bought their home in the Vandenvert neighborhood of Saint Louis in 1982 for $1,500. The home was dilapidated, and she has since put about $30,000 into the home to completely revamp it. In 1990, the average price for a home in the primarily black neighborhood where she purchased the home was $32,000. In 1994, Judith, who has a Master’s Degree, married Steve, a paralegal. Together, they, like the Ackermans, earned about $80,000 in 2003. As Judith and Steve considered their options for sending their children to school, they saw their best option to be private schools, which cost them $18,000 a year for both children. They took out a home equity loan to cover their expenses. By 2003, their house was worth about $70,000.

If the Andrews’ home had been in a primarily white Saint Louis neighborhood or suburb, it would have increased more in value between 1982 and 2003. Homes in the nearby suburb of Skinker, which is 88% white, were valued well into the $300,000s in 2013. And, the local Ralph M. Captain Elementary school that serves Skinker was ranked 10 out of 10 in Great Schools. In contrast, homes in good condition in Vandenvert were selling for less than $20,000 in 2013, and the local school, Cole Elementary, was ranked 1 out of 10 in Great Schools, with less than 20 percent of students passing assessment tests.

Julie Andrews could have made different decisions about where to purchase a home in 1983. However, her story is part of a larger pattern where African Americans are locked out of building home equity and having the opportunity to attend good public schools simply because they purchase homes in primarily black neighborhoods. These disadvantages are then passed along to their children, who will have to take out loans if they wish to attend college, and who will not be able to rely on their parents to help them out with a down payment on a home. And, thus, the cycle continues.

(Story from pages 57-59 of Oxford University Press book The Hidden Cost of Being African American and supplemented by information from )

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