New studies tell a familiar story: Racial disparities in assets

Two new reports from a national think tank look at financial security and opportunity in Minnesota, and find that Minnesota as a whole does better than the national averages, but worse than national averages when it comes to communities of color. Unfortunately, the story of Minnesota’s deep racial disparities is a familiar one – one you’ve heard from us most recently in our blog on census data on incomes and poverty.

CFED, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, is a leading national think tank on asset development and economic opportunity. Its work is built on the idea that income is necessary for families to get by, but assets are crucial for families to get ahead. CFED finds that 25.9 percent of households nationwide are in “asset poverty,” meaning they do not have enough savings or wealth to meet their basic needs in the event of job loss or other emergency.

CFED’s new Assets & Opportunity Profiles for Minneapolis and Hennepin County and St. Paul and Ramsey County find that Minnesota does better than the national average, but the figures for Minnesota’s communities of color are shocking, and are worse than the national figures. While 20.7 percent of all Minnesota households are asset poor, 58.5 percent of black Minnesotans, 42.0 percent of Latino Minnesotans, 21.7 percent of Asian Minnesotans and 43.3 percent of Native Americans in Minnesota are asset poor. Minnesota’s communities of color are also less likely to access higher education and own their homes.

While low-income households are more likely to be asset poor, the issue goes well up the income scale. Nearly one-quarter of households with incomes of $37,741 to $59,604 live in asset poverty. When families are asset poor, they have fewer opportunities to move up financially through education, home ownership, or entrepreneurship, and are less able to provide the stable environment that supports their children’s education. Lack of family economic security is a threat to the economic vitality of our communities and state.

I had the opportunity to learn more about these reports at a forum held Tuesday by CFED in partnership with Northwest Area Foundation, Legal Services Advocacy Project and the Greater Twin Cities United Way. In addition to providing analysis of assets and opportunity in our area, CFED and other participants talked about policies that can support Minnesota families to learn, earn, save, invest and protect. Minnesota has done well in some of these policies, including a strong state Earned Income Tax Credit and partnerships that promote its use and connections to free tax preparation, financial education and access to mainstream banking services.

Public policies play a role in determining who has the opportunity to build assets, as do employers, financial products, incentives and education. However, CFED finds that our nation’s approach to asset building is “upside down” because it provides the greatest support for asset building to those with the highest incomes, primarily through the tax code. In FY 2009, the federal government provided an average of $95,820 to support asset building by households with incomes over $1 million, yet only provided an average of $4 for asset building to households with incomes of $10,000 to $15,000.

As we’ve seen in our analysis of this year’s budget outcomes, this is an area where the state has reduced its investment. For example, state funding was eliminated for Family Assets for Independence in Minnesota (FAIM). Low-income participants in FAIM get their own savings matched with state and federal funds to help obtain post-secondary education, purchase a home, or start a new business. The loss of nearly $500,000 in state funds in FY 2012-13 will likely mean the loss of a matching grant from the federal government.

The participation in Tuesday’s forum of elected officials at the city, county and state levels, and other community partners, is a good sign. But we can – and must – do better. In order for our region and our state to be economically competitive in the future, all Minnesotans must have the opportunity to gain the education and economic stability that enables them to thrive and make their greatest contribution in the workforce.

-Nan Madden

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