Speaker reflects on racial wealth disparities

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Boshara
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After police officer-involved shootings and deaths, in Ferguson locally and elsewhere nationally, policing and the judicial system have been under heavy scrutiny.

Young black men, either armed or unarmed, have died in these high-profile cases, raising questions about potential racial profiling by police and about municipal courts using fines from traffic and other minor offenses to finance small-town or small-city governments.

In one case, a politician questioned whether a white man would have been shot and died in the same situation as a black man, then answered that he didn't think so.

While no one actually knows how that hypothetical situation would have transpired, similar questions — also unanswerable — are asked at the highest level among government and Church leaders.

"Would (they) have died or been killed if they would have had savings and wealth?" asked Ray Boshara of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis at a forum series on racial divide, Aug. 17 at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Webster Groves. Holy Redeemer, Mary Queen of Peace and Annunciation represented Catholic parishes among nine organizations co-sponsoring the forum. "Would they have been where they were if they or their families had savings to fall back on in emergency financial shocks, ... if they owned a home or small business in a state with great schools (and) had wealth to pass on to future generations?"

As director of the St. Louis Fed's Center for Household Financial Stability, Boshara contemplates such questions as he researches data about wealth in the United States. He also does so as a member of the archdiocesan Peace & Justice Commission, a parishioner at St. Peter in Kirkwood and an advisor to the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB). At Holy Redeemer, he mostly wore his "Fed hat," offering facts and figures from his research, while also offering a few views that were his own.

Wealth enables people "to imagine and achieve a very different future," he said, adding that education, employment, income, family background and health also play important roles in "financial security (but) there is something distinctive about wealth. It's a cushion against hard times, a spring board for a better future, and it alone, unlike your education, income or job, can be passed on to future generations."

According to Boshara, the gap between "thrivers" and "strugglers" has allowed thrivers to recover wealth lost in the recession of the late-2000s, as if they have a tailwind pushing them ahead. Meanwhile, many strugglers "are still underwater," as if they're facing a head wind.

"That is, similar efforts do not lead to similar wealth, which offends our sense of fairness," he said.

While education would seem to addresses income inequities among races, student loans have been a roadblock to many blacks, who start post-college life in a college-loan hole.

The numbers are sobering, but Boshara expressed optimism about "what we can do about it," and here, he took off his Fed hat.

He cited calls to dialogue, prayer and action, such as that of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton and others. He also suggested early intervetion in an endowment for young children that would be able to be used for education or employment.

Early intervention is "a promising way to ensure that inequity of outcomes from one generation does not become inequality of opportunity to next," he said.

Sobering statistics

Some of the statistics cited by Ray Boshara:

• "One in six Americans have zero or negative net worth (debts exceeding assets); this number jumps to one in three if you're black or Hispanic," he said, adding that "One in nine whites, one in eight Asians, one in four Hispanics and one in three blacks" have less than $1,000 in networth.

• Median figures — the midway point of the wealth spectrum — reveals "the median black family has about $11,000 in net worth; this compares to a median wealth of $134,000 for white families, a factor of about 12," he said. "More disturbing, the $11,000 net worth for blacks hasn't really budged in 30 years despite meaningful gains among blacks in income, educational attainment, ... anti-discrimination laws, hiring and political representation at every level of government."

• The gap between so-called thrivers and strugglers has "risen dramatically," he said. "Thirty years ago, thrivers owned about 45 percent of nation's wealth. Now, they command two-thirds of it despite being one quarter of the population. Meanwhile, strugglers who make up three-quarters of the population now have one-third of the nation's wealth. ... It's hard to imagine such massive shifts in wealth in only one generation."

Paths of action

Boshara cited reasons for hope and ways to act:

• For one, Diocese of Belleville Bishop Edward Braxton's call "to listen, learn, think, pray and act" should be heeded, and his seminal pastoral letters on the racial divide and Black Lives Matter movement, as well as his recent followup essay, should be read by Catholics everywhere.

• Other must-reads include: the Ferguson Report by the Ferguson Commission, which lives on as Forward Through Ferguson, and Washington University professor Jason Purnell's "For the Sake of All," which detailed an 18-year lifespan difference in the affluent 63105 zip code of Clayton vs. the 63106 zip code in St. Louis. Purnell also serves on the Peace & Justice Commission.

• And in an idea "near and dear to my heart and career," Boshara suggests early intervention in the form of an endowment for all infants or young children, a stock of assets that will grow over time to be used for funding college, financing a small business or saving for retirement. In conjunction with that, children's parents should receive support in job training plus access to credit, better homes and neighborhoods." 

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