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Detroit Proper: The Recession’s Toll on Black Education

Black families are no stranger to the struggle for quality education. We have taught our children to read under threat of death. We have created scientists out of dusty slates in one-room schoolhouses. We have survived attacking dogs, water cannons and racist mobs to win our children the right to an equal education. We have been burned out of white neighborhoods just because we believed our children should also learn in the best school districts. We have taken on three jobs and pooled family resources in order to send a child to college. Always, the sacrifice has resulted in a generation that had a chance to climb one step higher than the last.

But that hasn’t been true since the housing crisis. This fall, like every fall since the collapse, many of Detroit’s formerly middle- and upper-class families have only this advice to offer their college-age children: If you want a degree, you’ll have to get it yourself.

Detroit was one of the cities hardest hit in 2007 when predatory lending resulted in the collapse of the housing market and triggered the Great Recession. Black parents were not only plunged into years of unemployment, underemployment and foreclosure, they also experienced one of the steepest erasures of black wealth in history.

For Americans, and for blacks in particular, home is not only a castle but also the primary source of wealth. A home can be leveraged to pay for our children’s education, help them with down payments or major expenses and even fund our own retirement. Traditionally, when a family owns a home, it has a way to ensure the success of the next generation.

In 2007, immediately before the housing crisis, home equity comprised half of the average white family’s wealth. For black families, home equity made up 71 percent of their wealth. While many families saw their wealth wiped out in 2007, white homeowners started to recover in 2009-11 as property values began to stabilize and foreclosures subsided.

But there was no tourniquet for black homeowners, who were disproportionately victims of predatory lending. According to the Social Science Research Council, the typical white family lost a net 12 percent of their wealth due to the crisis. Black families lost a third.

Detroiters likely lost even more. In 2001, the average sale price of a home in Detroit was $84,000, Crain’s reports, although values varied widely depending on the neighborhood. Fifteen years later, the Detroit housing market has still recovered only 60 percent of its value. In 2000, the homeownership rate in the city was 55 percent, The Detroit News notes; by 2015, it was only 47 percent.

Even with foreclosures slowing and employment up, many Detroiters are stuck in houses that won’t appraise for their sale price. And adults who lost their jobs (and continue to be unemployed or underemployed) are still struggling to repair their credit ratings. The result is a generation of parents who are not able to qualify for equity loans to help their children get through college. That also means that there is a generation of students who will not be able to afford to go to college full time, or who will have to take on expensive debt in order to fund an education.

“The number one reason our kids don’t finish college is because they don’t have enough money to finish,” said Barbara Patton, Detroit area development director for the United Negro College Fund. “The economy has supposedly rebounded, but it hasn’t for the families we serve.”

Wealth in America is not a meritocracy but an “inheritocracy” – wealth is passed down as well as earned. According to the Social Science Research Council, the Great Recession not only set back the African-American families that weathered it, but it will continue to affect blacks more severely well into the future. By 2031, white wealth is forecast to be 31 percent below what it would have been without the Great Recession, while black wealth will be down almost 40 percent. For a typical black family, median wealth in 2031 will be almost $98,000 lower than it would have been without the Great Recession.

In his book Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington wrote, “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study in this way would be about the same as getting into paradise.” Sadly, for too many black high school graduates, that feeling has become paradise lost.

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