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Responding to Inequalities: Closing the wealth and poverty gaps for African American communities

Posted at 9:39 PM, Jun 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-09 22:39:29-04

MILWAUKEE — When it comes to wealth and poverty in Wisconsin, African Americans face enormous difficulties in both categories.

"It's an historical gap," Dr. Eve Hall, President and CEO of the Milwaukee Urban League said. "From the beginning, we were starting from behind."

Hall says the Milwaukee Urban League focuses on education, employment and economic vibrancy. The reason being, decades of systemic racism has put a disproportionate strain on communities of color in those categories. It's still felt today in the wealth and poverty gaps facing African Americans.

A study by the Federal Reserve Board says the median net worth for white families is about $134,000. For African American families, it's just $11,000.

"Redlining issues were a huge impact on our community," Hall said. "Any time there is a crisis, like the recession we experienced, that meant many of our homes went into foreclosure or were impacted by unemployment and layoffs."

Layoffs can have a direct impact on poverty. In Milwaukee County, 33.6 percent of African Americans live in poverty. It's more than three times higher than their white counterparts (10.8 percent in poverty).

Both of these statistics can be traced back to setbacks facing the African American community in Milwaukee. Hall says, factory jobs leaving Milwaukee in the 1970's played a big role in stagnating African American prosperity.

"Those jobs that give wages to support families, allowed many families to send their kids to schools, purchase homes," Hall said. "When that industry left, that began the ripple effect."

That ripple effect, continues to make waves in today's generation.

"It's nice to have a jumpstart," Erica Wright, Certified Financial Planner with Bell & Wright Financial Group, brokered through Northwestern Mutual said. "That's part of the wealth gap in the United States. We're always starting from scratch. When we say scratch, sometimes, we're starting with a bunch of debt or in a negative spot where our counterparts receive something to help them out with the nuances of life."

Wright and her business partner, J.B. Bell, help people achieve financial wealth. However, they like to highlight their work in helping African Americans achieve this goal.

"Anybody who does not acknowledge that African Americans in this country have to deal with a lot of extra adversity on their pursuit to the wealth some of their counterparts have, they're not being genuine," Bell said. "It's just the truth."

It's a daunting task, but Bell points out, it doesn't have to be.

"A lot of people, when they think about generational wealth, they think of handing down millions and gobs of money," Bell said. "That's fine but what we really work to do is to make sure people understand the phases that go with generational wealth."

Bell and Wright say, it's not something you can achieve overnight. Even for those who may not make enough money to save, they believe the road to generational wealth could start right now by investing in your biggest asset with very little financial risk.

"We encourage clients to invest in themselves," Wright said. "Find resources. Find a book on Amazon and read it and do better in your role so you can receive a promotion. Or, read on how to purchase real estate or start a business and make sure you're investing in yourself and getting that understanding."

Bell says, even with a little money, creating a safety net for your family can be attainable.

"First thing I did was buy a life insurance term policy," Bell said. "They can be as little as like $45 a month. It's peace of mind knowing, if I transition on my route to creating generational wealth, I've taken some steps to make sure something can be left after me. It's good for me."

Both Bell and Wright admit, there is no secret to creating generational wealth. It takes hard work, discipline and a team to help. But, again, even if you don't have the money to put down, you can right now start the journey for your children or your children's children to be in the position to create generational wealth.

"Generational wealth is a lot about values," Bell said. "What are we ultimately trying to give down? Some lessons I have came from people who didn't leave anything financially but instilled values I still use today."

Bell says, simply creating those values can cause the next generation to take those values of the Milwaukee Urban League seriously; education, employment and economic. They are three of many elements that African Americans face an uphill climb against. By creating those values, generations to come can be better prepared for the battle they're going to face.

The next level could be, eliminating debt; credit cards, or otherwise. Maybe it's paying off a home.

Whatever step you can make, it could be the one that cements your legacy within your family for generations to come.

"Imagine a relay race," Bell said. "You can start to see yourself as, I'm going to take this baton of life and run as far as I can for the next person. That's a healthier way of approaching this thing because it can be a lot to wrap generational wealth into one sitting. We can't accomplish that in our time here. It's an ongoing process."

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