Dzifa is a hard-working, immigrant woman who overcame some serious odds to recently get her Ph.D from the University of California, Los Angeles, in Public Health. Highly educated and gainfully employed with a coveted post doctoral fellowship position, Dzifa is closer to achieve her dream of conducting research to make a difference in the lives of women in her home country, Ghana. It seems Dzifa is winning at life by most standards.
Yet, Dzifa’s accomplishments also come at a huge price. Financing her education on her own, she carries more than $100,000 in student debt. As a result, she lives on an extremely tight budget and grapples with finding side gigs to help her with the high cost of living and making her way out of this enormous debt. Rather than taking on research she knows can make a difference, she takes on projects that are stable and adequately funded.
A black woman, Dzifa’s precarious economic position is not an anomaly. In my work with the Insight Center for Community Economic Development in Oakland, we recently released a report called Women, Race and Wealth that looks at the stark differences in wealth accumulation between white and black women across age, marital status, and educational attainment.
The report highlights some staggering data on the state of educated black women in America. The typical single black woman in her 20s and with a college degree is $11,000 in debt. Married black women with a college degree in their 30s are $20,000 in debt.
The average white woman does not show debt at any age, regardless of educational attainment. In fact, single white women without a college degree have $3,000 more in median wealth than single black women with a college degree. Single white women with a bachelor’s degree have seven times the wealth of single black women with college degrees.
These numbers show us that the old adage of working hard and getting educated isn’t enough to propel black women into economic security. We see how much intergenerational wealth accumulation matters as families with wealth are able to help their children with education, allowing them to limit their student debt and start building their own wealth more quickly.
The legacy of historical racist policies like redlining and denial of the GI Bill to black communities have given advantages to whites as it allowed them to build wealth over generations while denying it for others. Black communities are still feeling the unfair impact of this today.
I couldn’t help but think of Dzifa while writing this report. The reality is, as a black, immigrant woman, she was at a disadvantage from peers who may have had parents or family networks that could provide financial support (Dzifa’s could not) or other types of connections to bolster her education and career. Privilege and advantage go beyond the visible.
Understanding how systems work, having connections and access to people with wealth – these are factors that are often played out behind the scenes and have very real, profound impact in our lives.
Dzifa’s story reminds me of how much work we have to do to level the playing field and create a society where we live up to America’s promise of being a place where everyone has equal opportunity. To address current wealth racial inequities due to the policies of our past, we need to create new policies that support black families in gaining wealth. Ideas like baby bonds which gives money to young adults to help with school or buying a home, and policies like Universal Basic Income that help create a basic floor for all families can help with the current inequities we see.
There is no magic bullet but an acknowledgment of the issue and a commitment to enact race-conscious policies that seek to alleviate this disparity are steps in the right direction.
Jhumpa Bhattacharya is Director of Racial Equity and Strategy at the Oakland-based Insight Center for Community Economic Development. For more information, visit www.insightcced.org