Rodney Brooks has spent most of his life as a financial journalist but offering informal advice to his African-American friends and colleagues has been a big part of who he is as a person.
And his support has been a game-changer for those lucky to cross paths with him. That’s particularly true of those he helped sign up for their employer retirement plans.
His excellent new book, “Fixing the Racial Wealth Gap: Racism and Discrimination” is a keystone for his mission to create financial literacy and security for Black Americans and build generational wealth.
The gravity of the wealth inequality in America is one I would guess few are keenly aware of. I wasn’t, and I write about personal finance and money.
For example, as I mentioned in a recent column about women and retirement security, Black women are especially susceptible to health and wealth issues impacting their retirement outlooks. Many have spent their careers in low-wage jobs, “and they are also likely to outlive their partners and are more likely to grow old alone and in poverty,” Brooks writes.
Brooks notes that Black women in the U.S. who work full-time are typically paid just 63 cents for every dollar paid to white men. Black workers, and Black women in particular, are less likely to work for employers that offer retirement benefits.
It is a crisis.
The facts are a wake-up call now
This is the backdrop Brooks unpacks in the book:
The net worth of the average white family is $171,000, nearly 10 times greater than that of a Black family’s $17,150, according to a Brookings Institution report. And though Black Americans make up 13% of the nation’s population, their share of the nation’s wealth is only 2.5%, said William Darity, professor of public policy at Duke University.
Home ownership is the chief source of wealth for many Americans, but only 43% of Black people own homes, compared with 72% of white people.
Just 34% of African-Americans participate in retirement savings plans, while 60% of whites do, according to the Federal Reserve.
Only 33% of Black households owned stocks in 2019, while nearly 61% of white households did. Less than half of people of color who responded to an Allianz Life survey said they own investments and other accounts that can help with retirement security, including life insurance, individual retirement accounts, and annuities.
And retired Black Americans depend heavily on Social Security. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration, about 38% of minority beneficiaries rely on Social Security for 90% or more of their income, compared with 28% percent of White people.
Meantime, Social Security benefits can be lower for African-Americans because benefits are based on income and Black workers have historically earned less.
A report from the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis said that there has been zero progress in closing the wealth gap for the last 70 years, Brooks writes. A report by Prosperity Now and the Institute of Policy Studies says the net worth of Black Americans would be zero by 2053 if current trends continue.
I reached out to Brooks to learn more about his book. In full disclosure, he has been an editor, friend, and colleague of mine since I worked as a columnist at USA Today about 20 years ago. He was the deputy managing editor/personal finance at that time.
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Kerry Hannon: Why did you publish this book now?
Rodney A. Brooks: The pandemic made things worse for Black Americans. More Black Americans work part-time in lower wage jobs. When the pandemic happened, people of color suffered a great deal more, because they had service jobs. If they stayed home, then they did not keep their jobs.
What are the major challenges?
In addition to the huge pay issues, for Black women, it’s often the in and out of the job market. One reason is that Black people in general have so many health issues. Of the top 13 causes of death in America, Black Americans suffer disproportionately from nine of them, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Women are taking time away from their jobs to care for their spouses and for their parents and there’s child care, too.
Black Americans do not save for retirement. Part of it is the lower income jobs, but part of it is also financial literacy. A distrust of banks has made Black Americans very conservative with their investments. And if you don’t have a lot of the money in the first place, you’re not going to risk it. That leads to a scary retirement scenario.
Black Americans also take Social Security especially early. Realistically, they often can’t wait until 70, when most financial advisers suggest you should, to get a higher benefit. If you have no other income, that’s the only income you’re looking at, you’re going to take it when you can, and that is as early as 62.
What action steps do you recommend?
One of the things people can do is talk to their children about finances. Black families feel like it’s taboo. That’s true of some white families as well. In my book, I talk about a business owner in New York. Her mother made her write the checks for the bills when she was a little girl, and she said, ‘I never asked for anything because I knew there was nothing left after I paid the bills.’ And she did the same thing with her daughter.
I never had a financial discussion with my parents ever. I went to college, not even knowing how to open a checking account, or balance a checkbook. We need to promote financial literacy in schools. Personal finance classes need to be a part of the regular curriculum in middle and high schools. Parents can learn along with the children. there are great personal finance apps and websites today, and many churches help with financial education, too.
We also must educate people about financial planners and the importance of things like financial plans and estate plans. If you can, find an affordable financial adviser to help you. It doesn’t have to be expensive. You want to have someone you’re comfortable talking about money because it’s personal. I recommend searching for a certified financial planner, or CFP, in The Association of African-American Financial Advisors.
What’s your biggest takeaway for your readers of this book?
I’m not trying to depress people, but the numbers are bad. It’s clear to me though that there is thirst for financial knowledge.
And there are some programs and policies out there that can possibly help close the racial wealth gap that I write about in the book. For instance, the federal government could create what is being called Baby Bonds. The idea was proposed in a report by economist William H. Darity and Darrick Hamilton of Ohio State University.
The plan would call for the government to give every child born in the United States a savings account at birth. The Darity/Hamilton proposal would cut America’s racial gap by half, according to an analysis by Morningstar, a financial services firm.
A similar plan has been proposed by Ric Edelman, a nationally recognized personal finance expert and author and founder of Edelman Financial Engines. Edelman’s plan, meanwhile, would not depend on the government or taxpayers. Instead, these Baby Bonds would be funded by people buying bonds similar to those issued during World War II. Investors would get their money back, plus interest, when the bonds mature in 20 years.
Nearly three quarters of the states have enacted or proposed legislation for a state-sponsored retirement program. Some have made it mandatory that employers offer the programs, while others have made them voluntary. These state-sponsored plans generally focus on people working for small companies, as well as younger workers, minorities, and low- to moderate-income earners. They are usually designed as Roth IRAs, invest in low-risk investments. Some automatically enroll employees via payroll deduction.
Finally, we could address racial discrimination in the housing market by launching an interagency governmental effort to address inequity in home appraisals and combat housing discrimination.
Kerry Hannon is a jobs expert, workplace futurist and strategist on entrepreneurship, personal finance, and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home, Never Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-Life. Her forthcoming book is In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.