COLUMN: Financial literacy courses won’t solve the racial wealth gap

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On a recent segment of Fox News, self-proclaimed financial guru and right-wing commentator Dave Ramsey attacked President Joe Biden’s pandemic aid plan to send more direct payments to struggling families. Ramsey blamed Americans for their economic struggles amid a pandemic that has decimated the economy and left more than 20 million people unemployed, arguing that “you have a career problem, you have a debt problem, you have a relationship problem, you have a mental health problem, or something else is going on if $600 changes your life.”

Ramsey, a man whose net worth is approaching $500 million, isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. He articulated an extreme version of a more common belief that if low-income Americans were only taught better life skills and money management, they could experience a rags-to-riches trajectory. Since at least as early as the Ronald Reagan administration, people have falsely attributed community-level poverty to a supposed defect in the collective character of Black people, in particular, and used this false narrative as a way to justify cutting critical social programs. Reagan’s dismantling of the War on Poverty was preceded by targeted use of racially loaded “welfare queen” rhetoric in many of his speeches, an assertion that Black people would rather live off the government dole than try to find jobs and support their families. Reagan simultaneously ushered in an era of trickle-down economics that included tax cuts for the rich. Blaming poor people, while enabling the rich to hoard even more wealth, has always been in fashion.

Workers’ inability to balance a checkbook didn’t create a pandemic economy in which the fortunes of Wall Street investors, large corporations, and the wealthiest families in the country have soared.

Workers’ inability to balance a checkbook didn’t create a pandemic economy in which the fortunes of Wall Street investors, large corporations, and the wealthiest families in the country have soared, while renters, essential and low-wage workers, and owners of local mom-and-pop shops and restaurants have struggled to make ends meet. Rather, most experts on the economy say the pandemic has only exacerbated structural problems that existed before — none of them under the control of individuals from historically disenfranchised groups.

In particular, redlining, racially restrictive housing covenants, single-family zoning ordinances and other processes robbed billions from Black people and the communities in which they reside.

Ramsey isn’t the first one to blame financial illiteracy for being in poverty instead of the anti-Black policies and practices that have systemically extracted wealth from people for generations. My research has shown that homes in Black neighborhoods are underpriced by $156 billion compared to similar homes with similar social and economic demographics in white-majority neighborhoods. Schools in Black-majority districts get significantly less money to learn as a result.

Related: Debt Without Degree: The human cost of college debt that becomes “purgatory”

Maybe more people should know that predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in funding in the 2015-16 school year than districts that serve mostly students of color. Perhaps then, we can stop blaming and shaming poor people and start working on the root of the inequality that endangers our society.

Until then, headlines like this one in USA Today will continue to distract us from the problem: “To start closing the Black wealth gap, teach personal finance to high school students.” The underlying assumption is that the Black wealth gap is a product of Black ignorance about how to handle money. While teaching high schoolers good financial habits is wonderful, it is absurd to maintain that doing so will close the racial wealth gap. Black people can save every discretionary cent for the next 250 years and it would still not close the racial wealth gap in this country.

In fact, data shows that the people without means are attempting to use education to increase their economic mobility and are going into debt to do so. According to my analysis of federal 2018 Survey of Income and Program Participation, people with zero to negative net worth are the ones investing in a better education.

But wealth begets wealth in this country. To understand why Black households have a median income that is nearly ten times less the median income for white households, we need to address America’s past and recent history of exploiting Black people to build wealth and prosperity for others. These inequities are both baked in and ongoing. In terms of wealth, recent research by various fellows at the Brookings Institution illustrates how Covid-19 has both revealed preexisting wealth gaps and significantly increased those gaps. But so far, Black Americans have only gotten about 5 percent of Covid-19 vaccinations, largely because so many testing sites are placed in majority-white communities.

There are more ways to lift the quality of life for the poor. Lowering or erasing student loan debt, raising the minimum wage, supporting the right of workers to unionize, and of course ensuring the wealthiest are paying their fair share in taxes. This should be a moment in which we should equitably share the burden of our collective recovery.

Increasing financial literary is a noble goal, but a lack of financial literacy did not cause wealth inequalities. If anything, wealthy people need to reckon with how they made their fortunes and who they exploited on the way.

This story about financial literacy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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