The Racial Wealth Gap and People with Disabilities
As explained in Part 1 of this series, the racial wealth gap describes the difference in median wealth between White households and households of color. Wealth doesn’t just mean “dollars earned”; it includes assets plus income minus debts. According to a recent Federal Reserve report, White households average eight times the wealth of Black households and five times the wealth of Latinx households nationally. When we consider how the racial wealth gap intersects with disability, its effects become even more pronounced. People with disabilities face significant barriers to wealth building and are 28 percent more likely than nondisabled people to be under-banked or unbanked. Limited accessible housing options can reduce disabled people’s chances at homeownership. And the asset limits baked into many disability benefits programs make accumulating wealth all but impossible. Factor in the effects of COVID-19 on the health and wealth of people of color with disabilities, and it’s clear that systemic change is needed to confront and close this compounded wealth gap.
Ensuring no one is left behind
“With the Chicago Community Trust focused on closing the racial wealth gap for the next decade, we have a huge opportunity to ensure that people with disabilities are not left behind,” says Kathy Ryg, co-chair of the Trust’s Disabilities Fund.The Trust’s strategy to close the racial wealth gap hinges on increasing economic prosperity for Black and Latinx individuals and families through increased incomes, asset-building, and debt reduction. It also targets systemic and policy-based structures that perpetuate economic inequality. “This systems-change approach must take disability into account,” says Ryg, “or we risk leaving behind the 14% of African Americans in Illinois who self-identify with disabilities, many of whom live in poverty. If we don’t address the policies that specifically inhibit wealth accumulation for people of color with disabilities, our strategies will be at best partially successful.”
Like the wealth gap as a whole, the racial wealth gap for people with disabilities is a systemic problem at heart. Eliminating the disability benefits trap (discussed in Part 1), for example, would “require a change in the Social Security Administration’s way of doing business,” as Dr. Kate Caldwell of the University of Illinois at Chicago puts it. According to Netflix’s Explained, “The wealth gap has grown so large, over so many years, it would take something truly radical to close it.” Lindsay Baran, Policy Analyst at the National Council on Independent Living, further points to ensuring a living (not just minimum) wage, adequate benefits, affordable housing, healthcare coverage, and long-term services and supports as key high-level changes that could start to chip away at inequities for disabled people of color.
Individuals interested in moving the needle on this issue in their own communities need to begin with self-education. “On an individual level, research more about these issues and advocate for these changes,” Baran says. “In your own organization, review your business practices: hiring, compensation, advancement, etc. Look at your leadership, and see what changes need to be made. Donate to racial justice and disability rights/justice organizations already doing this work and see if there are other ways you can support them as well.”
Influence and Investment
“It is essential that policy makers, service providers, and others who hold positions of privilege and power in society consider the implications of having a disability for everyone,” scholar activist Dr. Angel Love Miles continues. “That means paying attention to how the experience of disability varies depending on race, class, gender, citizenship status, sexuality, age, nation, etc., and how each of these impacts one’s access to wealth.” Caldwell encourages decision makers to invest in local disabled-owned businesses. “When you have people in disadvantaged communities — especially communities of color, especially immigrant communities, especially people with disabilities, especially anywhere that those intersect or overlap — you’re going to have actual innovation that’s driving change for what that community needs. It’s a community development strategy on top of anti-poverty and unemployment strategy. And so, because they know best what their communities need, the best thing we can do is to invest in those communities and to invest in those entrepreneurs.”
She also points out that funding isn’t the only meaningful form of support. “In-kind investment is really important for people with disabilities. Contributions are really important because they don’t threaten that individual’s benefits, whereas if they were just receiving the money, then they’d have to figure out ‘How am I going to do that without losing the benefits?’ If you’re a lawyer, provide pro bono legal assistance. If you are an accountant or in [the] finance sector, providing pro bono financial services is really important. Any mentorship, any networking opportunities. Even just saying, ‘Hey, did you know there’s a trade show?’ or ‘There’s a professional organization, let me buy you a membership in it.’ It’s really investing in other ways.”
Ultimately, closing the racial wealth gap will require all of these efforts and more. To build an inclusive region, Miles says, “we must acknowledge and account for the full spectrum of diversity and inequality in the disability community.”
“Race and disability intersect,” Ryg explains. “In order to make a true shift to equity, policies and programs need to reflect this reality.” Only then, as Miles says, can we “create a more equitable society where there truly is Nothing About Us Without All of Us!”