Bring Blacks and Hispanics Into the Middle Class

August 24, 2005 | Newsday |

Forty years ago this month President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The act was a great victory for the civil rights movement, signaling change and adding momentum to the drive for equality.

But while we celebrate the anniversary of this victory, we cannot lose sight of the fact that change still is not complete and opportunity still isn't equal. And we need to be looking ahead.

One of the biggest shifts we'll see in the next 40 years is demographic. The African-American population will grow at a rate that is 10 times that of the white population. The Hispanic population will grow at a rate that is 26 times greater. As we head to 2050, four out of 10 Americans will be Hispanic or African-American.

These days it seems to be a political minefield to mention African-Americans and Hispanics in the same sentence. But these two populations have something very important in common. Combined, they make up the largest racial and ethnic segment of the country. And while access to economic opportunity has increased for both African-Americans and Hispanics in the past 40 years, both groups still are much less likely to be in the middle class than whites.

Twenty-eight percent of whites hold a college degree. The rate for African-Americans is 17 percent, and for Hispanics 11 percent. About three out of four whites own their homes, but less than one out of two African-Americans and Hispanics do. For every dollar in income earned by white households, African-American households earn 62 cents, and Hispanic households earn 69 cents. For every dollar in wealth owned by white households, African-American and Hispanic households own about 10 cents.

Why should these disparities matter to the country as a whole? What's the big deal if the middle class is much more likely to be white than to reflect the makeup of the population?

Two hundred and thirty years into our country's history and 40 years after landmark civil rights legislation, disparate economic opportunity falling along racial and ethnic lines is not acceptable. The middle class is the bedrock of security and stability in our society. As we move ahead, we cannot afford to have this stability and security be less available for the fastest-growing and largest segment of the population.

While the civil rights movement waged a battle against overt racism and fought for basic rights for nonwhites decades ago, the country was undergoing an unprecedented expansion of the middle class. This expansion was due to post-World War II policies that mostly, and in many cases only, favored whites.

Programs such as the GI Bill and subsidies for first-time home buyers and suburban development enabled white mass movement into the middle class. But because of discriminatory practices in their implementation, such policies were mostly closed to nonwhite Americans.

Only after the achievement of voting rights could we set our sights on attacking discrimination in housing and lending, and on increasing access to education.

As a result of these efforts, access to the middle class for nonwhites has increased over time. But even today, we still see the evidence of decades of unequal opportunity.

The first wave of the modern American middle class was built in the years following World War II, and it's well within our grasp to build the second wave by increasing access for those groups who were denied it in the past.

With forecasted population growth, and the large disparities that exist, we need to commit to ensuring that the fast-growing African-American and Hispanic populations have the boost into the middle class that the white population had decades ago.

To do this, we need to target the economic disparities that affect the opportunities of many African-Americans and Hispanics.

Where can we start? Promote access to higher education by investing more in the education of children from low- and moderate-income families. Enable homeownership by creating a matched savings program to help low-income families save toward a down payment on a home. Encourage the accumulation of wealth by cracking down on unfair practices such as predatory lending.

Forty years after the victory of the Voting Rights Act, the bigger promise of equal opportunity is yet to be fulfilled. But the action needed is clear.

Jennifer Wheary is a senior fellow at Demos, a public policy organization in Manhattan.