Recession hits older blacks in what should be their prime

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 23, 2010 

WASHINGTON — America's economic recession has hit African Americans who are middle age and older much harder over the last year than it has the general public, according to a new survey released Tuesday by the AARP.

In telephone surveys, more than twice as many African Americans ages 45 and older reported having trouble paying their mortgage or rent, having to cut back on medications and having borrowed money to pay living expenses in comparison to the general population.

Twice as many blacks also reported losing a job and having a spouse who either lost a job or had to take a second job. Nearly twice as many blacks had difficulty paying for essential items such as food and utilities.

These older, established black workers also lost their job-based health coverage at higher rates, were more likely to raid their retirement savings prematurely and provide financial help to their parents and children more often than their age-equivalent peers, the survey found.

The data reinforces what many experts have said for months: that the recession is really a depression for many blacks, particularly in areas where black unemployment has surpassed or hovers around 20 percent.

AARP Vice President Edna Kane-Williams said the disparities reflect the tough circumstances and tough choices blacks are making to survive the economic downturn.

"The recession has driven many African Americans to make hard choices now that may lead to serious problems down the road," Kane-Williams said. "Raiding your nest egg or ending contributions, even in the short-term, will have long-term consequences because you will have less time to make up the losses."

The troubling findings paint a gloomy financial picture for African-American workers during what should be some of their prime earning years, said Algernon Austin, who heads the Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy program at the Economic Policy Institute.

The data also bodes ill for the future of these workers, Austin said, since many are using their retirement savings to pay for living expenses, health care and education costs and to support adult children.

"These findings suggest we shouldn't be surprised if we see increases in poverty rates for blacks 65 and older in the coming years because a number of them are spending down their retirement income to try to get past this Great Recession," he said.

Equally troubling is that older blacks aren't consulting financial planners or using the Internet for financial assistance at the same rates as their non-black peers. Instead, they're relying more on financial advice from friends and family members.

The survey did find that blacks were more likely to be training for a job in a new field, looking for a job and taking part in job fairs.

Nationally, the black unemployment rate is 16.5 percent, compared with 9.7 percent for the nation as a whole. The jobless rate is 8.7 percent for whites, 12.6 percent for Hispanics and 8.4 percent for Asians.

"I would have no problem saying (blacks are) in a depression," Austin said. "There are different technical definitions and debates about what is or isn't a depression, but to me, when you have unemployment close to 20 percent or above, the community is economically depressed."

The AARP survey was conducted by phone in January and involved a national random sample of 1,407 respondents, of which 405 were black. The margin of error is 3.1 percentage points for the non-black respondents and 4.9 percentage points for the African-American sample group.

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AARP's survey on the recession's impact

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