Unseen, Unrecognized and Unaddressed: A Silent Depression in Communities of Color

According to the authors of, The Silent Depression: State of the Dream 2009, an annual report by United for a Fair Economy, people of color are suffering through a “Silent Depression” because although the evidence of its devastating effects are everywhere, it is going largely unseen, unrecognized and unaddressed.

Instead, the country’s attention has been focused on the year-old recession afflicting the nation. People of color, however, have been experiencing a recession for the last five years, which has evolved into a full-blown depression where they live. “But there has been no recognition of this depression by the Congress, the President, or the mainstream news media. There has been no bailout, no aid package, no rule changed to reverse this disaster,” write the co-authors of the report.

This year’s report, released on the 80th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., presents some jaw-dropping statistics about unemployment, and income and wealth inequality in American society:

-- The unemployment rate among blacks is about 12 percent. Among young black males between the ages of 16 and 19, the unemployment rate is 32.8 percent.

-- The median household incomes of blacks and Latinos – $38,269 and $40,000 respectively – are substantially lower than the median household incomes of whites ($61,280).

-- Poverty disproportionately impacts people of color in America. The poverty rates for Blacks (24 percent) and Latinos (21 percent) are more than twice the poverty rate for whites (10 percent).

-- Nearly 30 percent of blacks have zero or negative wealth, compared to only 15 percent of whites.

-- Whereas, 43.4 percent of whites have retirement accounts, only 18 percent or people of color are similarly situated.

-- On the median, blacks and Latinos have 15 cents for every dollar of white wealth. On average, for every dollar of white wealth, blacks and Latinos have only 8 cents of wealth.

A May 18, 2009 article in The Washington Post puts into perspective just how precarious life is for poor people of color. The article begins, “You have to be rich to be poor.” This is the kind of paradoxical insight that only someone who really knows the experience of being poor can truly understand. “Put it another way: The poorer you are, the more things cost. More in money, time, hassle, exhaustion, menace. This is a fact of life that reality television and magazines don’t often explain,” the writer explains.

In fact, the poor are exploited and abused in a number of ways. The poor pay more for food at urban corner stores. They pay more for housing in rundown, dangerous neighborhoods. And, because they are less likely to have checking accounts or easy access to credit, the poor end up cashing their check and borrowing money at check-cashing and payday loan joints that charge outrageous fees for their services.

Some businesses even prey on the poor by offering them a loan in exchange for car titles. If the loan is not repaid, the business takes possession of their automobile.

But, the black and Latino poor are not the only one’s who are economically insecure these days.

A recent report by Demōs and the Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) at Brandeis University reinforces the idea that even before the current economic downturn, black and Latino middle-class families were less likely to be economically secure than other members of the middle class.

The report, “The Downslide Before The Downturn: Declining Economic Security Among Middle Class African Americans and Latinos, 2000-2006,” presents some troubling findings about the precarious position of middle-class black and Latino families:

-- Compared to middle-class white families, economic security in the form of assets, education, affordable housing, essential expenses, and healthcare access has declined more rapidly for blacks and Latinos. While 76 percent of middle-class families experienced economic insecurity in 2006, 84 percent of black and 88 percent of Latino middle class families were not financially secure, up from 74 and 77 percent in 2000.

-- Between 2000 and 2006, the number of families lacking health insurance jumped from 18 to 30 percent among blacks and from 26-39 percent for Latinos.

-- During the six year period, the median assets of blacks declined by 33 percent, while those held by Latinos dropped by 60 percent.

The assets of middle-income families of color have been especially hard hit by the melt-down in the housing market. A May 16, 2009 article in the New York Times showed that middle class families of color have been hurt the most by the subprime crises in New York City. The Times article is consistent with studies showing that across the nation, people of color – even middle and upper income borrowers of color – are more likely to receive subprime, predatory loans, than whites.

Unable to pay these high-cost loans, people of color have been disproportionately burdened by foreclosures in cities all over the nation.

Homeownership is a key to wealth generation in the black and Latino communities. The total loss of wealth for people of color from foreclosures and the decline in home values could reach $213 billion, including $92 billion for blacks and $98 billion for Latinos.

Blacks and Latinos suffer disproportionately because of institutional racism and public policy that evolves out of it. “Institutional racism is embedded in the structures (i.e., cultural, organizational, governmental and academic, etc.) of our society and manifests itself in the distribution, implementation and access to resources and opportunities,” write the co-authors of The Silent Depression report.

Let’s be clear, this form of racism does not grow out of hatred of people of color by a few racist whites. In the case of the housing crisis, it is the product of the deregulation of financial markets and institutions during the Administration’s of Reagan, Bush(s), and Clinton placed on top of a foundation created by decades of housing segregation – de jure and de facto.

Let's be honest with ourselves, if the white population was experiencing similar rates of poverty, unemployment, a lack of access to quality and affordable healthcare, a lack of social mobility, and exorbitant rates of foreclosure on their houses, a national emergency would have been declared a long time ago.

Given the long history of racially-biased public policy which has provided most whites with unearned advantages in our society, addressing the vulnerabilities of black and Latino families both at the bottom and the middle of our nation’s class system and other aspects of racial inequality that characterize American society will require public policies that are race-specific. On the national level, the Congress and the President must work together to pass legislation that will encourage jobs creation in the inner-city, help families of color build assets and reduce debt, deal with the housing crisis, and tackle the problem of access to affordable healthcare.


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