Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Economic Blues

Magazine article Diverse Issues in Higher Education

Economic Blues

Article excerpt

As the recession continues to take its toll, many Black Americans find themselves almost back at square one.

When Cole and Tracey Wallace purchased their home in Maryland's Prince George's County, the achievement of home ownership marked a giant step in their plan to become another Ail-American family in one of the wealthiest majority Black counties in the nation.

The five-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot home, situated on a cul-de-sac and backed by a golf course in the fashionable Lake Arbor area of Bowie, cost $450,000 in August 2007.

A stretch, yes, even after their down payment. Still, the Prince George's real estate market was on a fast uptick and home buying there, as was the case in most of the nation earlier this decade, seemed like a smart investment for building wealth. The Wallaces' income could support the $3,600 house note and household expenses. The house had plenty of room for their growing family and space for them to unwind after getting home from their jobs, his in the hotel business and hers in government.

Today, a national economy gone bust has derailed the Wallace family's ambitious plans and those of millions of Blacks across the country. Gone are many of the economic gains, small as they were, achieved in the postsegregation era by millions of 1960s generation children and their children. Black America today is beset by job losses, business closures, pay cuts, furloughs, investment and savings losses, nose-diving home values and losses of homes and cars.

As important, the economic shakeout has redefined the landscape ahead, as established ways of getting ahead - undergraduate and graduate degrees - and the infrastructure that nurtured it - affirmative action and diversity programs - have been turned on their heads. Thousands of high-income, white-collar jobs in the services industries, foundations and education have been eliminated. Diversity programs have been moved down the priority list of many employers. The gains of a whole era and the optimism that fed it have vanished.

"The recession has exposed our vulnerability," says Hugh C. Burroughs, a consultant to foundations. "We're not as secure or as strong as we think."

Burroughs, a foundation executive since the early 1970s, says the recession has "caused a weakness of confidence" in the longheld "success" formula that prescribed getting a good education from a historically Black college, then a graduate degree from a prestigious historically White college, "then you're set for life. We've found that doesn't work," Burroughs says.

The psychological impact of the recession is just as strong, adds Ron Brown, a management consultant to Fortune 100 companies.

"It (the economic bust) has impacted the pattern of ambition for Black Americans," says Brown, a partner in Northern California-based Banks Brown. "After getting in a position where there was a level of excitement, people are frozen in place now. There are companies where there have been layoffs, and the people remaining are happy to have their jobs. Advancing was their focus. Now, remaining is their focus. People are in holding patterns."

The economic slump is hitting people in different ways. Still, for all but a few of the wealthiest Black Americans, most are telling grim stories that illuminate the daily drum of aggregate numbers about double-digit unemployment, declining purchasing power, depleted savings and home foreclosures. They also tell a story of a determination to work through it.

The Wallaces are selling their home because it has lost nearly 25 percent of its value in a county where nearly half the 15,400 homes on the market so far this year were in foreclosure or so-called short-sale status (sold for less than is due the lender). Countywide, home prices are down nearly a third from their peak earlier in the decade, real estate experts say.

Meanwhile, child care for 2-year-old Cole III, food and utility bills continue to rise in the Wallace household while their pay has been frozen. …

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