The U.S. Census Bureau released alarming data yesterday verifying something we've known all too well for the past three years: Black and Latino communities have been disproportionately hurt by the Great Recession. However, the Bureau's report reveals the extent of the damage, demonstrating that the median wealth of white households is now 18 times that of Latino families and 20 times that of black families.
These numbers are jarring and illustrate a widening income gap (the largest since the Bureau's been collecting income data) between whites and communities of color in the United States. Consider that while the median wealth of white households dropped by 16% during the recession, black households saw their median wealth drop by 53% and Latinos lost nearly 66% of their wealth. These statistics are dismal, to say the least.
Money isn't everything, as they say, but disparity and inequity levy incredibly corrosive effects upon the broader society. As the late historian Tony Judt argued, the levels of income inequality in the United States are uncommon among other wealthy nations. Such enormous income gaps, Judt noted, breed animosity, insecurity, and – most strikingly – unhappiness.
So, in a nation where we're all endowed with the right to pursue happiness, our policies and our economic attitudes are making that happiness harder and harder to find. Whole could and have been written about the causes of the recession, but what caused it is less important than how we responded to it. We didn't take steps to ensure that those who would be most financially devastated by an economic downturn (say Latino mortgage-holders in California and Florida or Blacks employed in manufacturing or the service industry) had some sort of safety net beyond a meager tax refund.
We didn't take those critical steps and now rather than building up our social safety nets, we're tearing them down. Among those social safety nets – perhaps the most critical of them all – is the promise of a quality public education to all children, free of charge. Every time we close a struggling school rather than coming to its aid, every time we cut an after school program to "protect our job creators," and every time we push out a high school student we destroy a safety net and widen the disparity. And yet, this is exactly how we have responded to the Great Recession.