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August 25, 2021

By Satomi Rash-Zeigler, Managing Director at San Diego & Imperial Counties Labor Council

This is a guest authored post. Opinions do not necessarily represent those of the San Diego Workforce Partnership.

Male Bus Driver

At the age of ten, my father put me on a plane to Atlanta to meet my grandparents for the very first time. My grandparents had a beautiful brick house in the country that, to a small child from the city, seemed huge with a forest for a backyard. If I had met my grandparents just ten years earlier, I would have been greeted by an entirely different picture.

They were living in the projects in New York City with their six children where my grandmother was able to find domestic work while my grandfather worked as a bus driver for the city. They arrived in New York from South Carolina by way of the great migration. They, like millions of other Black families during the era of segregation and Jim Crow laws, traveled north to try to escape the hard life of the rural south where they lived day to day in poverty.  

How did my family go from living in public housing in New York to retiring with dignity and respect in the Georgia countryside where they lived in a house until they passed away? It was because of my grandfather’s job as a bus driver—his union bus driver job. Although his wages were modest, being part of a union gave he and his family the benefit of a pension, which provided the ability to retire from back-breaking work. Unions have a significant impact on those who have historically been marginalized in our society and are one of the strongest solutions we have to mitigate the racial wealth gap. 

Racial Wealth Gap

The racial wealth gap is a severe and pervasive problem in the United States that is historically rooted in the enslavement of people of African descent, which flourished under a government that legalized systemic racism. To understand this problem, it must first be clarified that family wealth is a product of community context, family savings and family income, and that wealth is measured by the value of the assets held by the family.1 

On average, white households have 10 times more wealth than Black households.2 In 2016, white families had a median and mean family wealth of $171,000 and $933,700 respectively, while Black families’ median and mean net worth was $17,600 and $138,200 respectively.3 And while the wealthiest families’ most valuable assets vary from equity stocks to businesses and homes, including rental properties owned, for the least wealthy families, their most valuable asset is their vehicles (Table 1). Black families will potentially lose out on close to $2 trillion between 2019 and 2028 because of the inequities of redlining, reduced home values compared to white home owners and discriminatory lending practices.1  

Family income is a major contributor to the increase in the racial wealth gap. The amount of disposable income a family can save has a direct impact on how families respond to situations that require a large amount of liquidity. Building wealth within Black families is constrained by “unmet needs and obstacles,” including, but not limited to, higher costs and more barriers to access capital (credit redlining), higher student loan debt, and other factors that when exposed to them suffocate lifetime earnings.

Compared to white workers in the workforce, Black workers face more attrition in the pipeline from entry level to the C-Suite and when comparing compensation, Black women make 48-68 cents on the dollar to white men. This is particularly significant because 80 percent of Black mothers are the primary source of income for their families—that’s about four million households that rely on the income of Black women in order to survive. And approximately one in four of those households live below the poverty level.4 By eliminating the wage gap, close to one million families would be lifted out of poverty. 

Benefits of Union Membership

The racial wealth gap can be narrowed when union membership increases because union members have greater wealth than nonmembers, earn 20-50% more, and have more benefits and employment stability than nonunion members. The difference is much larger, about five times as much, for BIPOC than whites. 65% of the Black population is concentrated in 16 states and 11 of the 16 states are Right to Work (RTW) states. RTW laws are divisive and racist laws created during the Jim Crow era that lead to lower wages, fewer benefits and more dangerous workplaces. In states with these laws, wages are lower, poverty levels are higher, people are less likely to have health insurance and resources for education are lower—even infant mortality and the likelihood of being killed on the job are higher.  

Supporting Workers

So as we approach Labor Day, how can we support working people around the country while simultaneously attempting to improve our society? One action we can all take is to support the passing of the Richard Trumka Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act). The PRO Act would dramatically alter federal labor law by codifying many provisions that would empower workers and help lift many out of poverty. Passing the PRO Act means repealing Right to Work and giving workers the freedom to exercise their legal right to organize and negotiate a fair contract around their working conditions without fear of retaliation. Unions help everyone while doing the most for those with the least because everyone in society benefits when things are more equitable. The middle class is at its strongest when union membership is high. And that is the purpose of unions—to make our society great for everyone who lives in it. 


1. Noel, Nick, et al. “The Economic Impact of Closing the Racial Wealth Gap.” McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, 15 Jan. 2021, www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-economic-impact-of-closing-the-racial-wealth-gap.  

2. “About the Racial Wealth Gap, The Chicago Community Trust.” The Chicago Community Trust, 24 Jan. 2020, www.cct.org/about/about-the-racial-wealth-gap/.  

3. “Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances.” The Fed – Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances, 27 Sept. 2017, www.federalreserve.gov/econres/notes/feds-notes/recent-trends-in-wealth-holding-by-race-and-ethnicity-evidence-from-the-survey-of-consumer-finances-20170927.htm.  

4. Olson, Kristi A. “Fair Pay and the Gender Wage Gap*.” The Solidarity Solution, 2020, pp. 135–152., doi:10.1093/oso/9780190907457.003.0008.  



Table 1. Household financial profile by race/ethnicity, 2016 survey 

Thousands of 2016 dollars or percent

  

White 

Black 

Hispanic 

Other 

Income: 

  Median 

61.2 

35.4 

38.5 

50.6 

  Mean 

123.4 

54.0 

57.3 

86.9 

Net Worth: 

  Median 

171 

17.6 

20.7 

64.8 

  Mean 

933.7 

138.2 

191.2 

457.8 

Percent of families with zero or negative net worth 

9 

19 

13 

14 

Assets (percent of families with): 

  Primary residence 

73 

45 

46 

54 

  Vehicle 

90 

73 

80 

80 

  Retirement accounts 

60 

34 

30 

48 

  Business equity 

15 

7 

6 

13 

  Direct and indirect equity 

61 

31 

28 

47 

Debts (percent of families with): 

  Debt secured by primary residence 

46 

32 

31 

38 

  Vehicle loans 

34 

33 

32 

34 

  Credit card balances 

42 

48 

50 

44 

  Education loans 

20 

31 

19 

26 

Wealth from housing (for homeowners): 

  Percent of assets in housing 

32 

37 

39 

35 

  Mean net housing wealth 

215.8 

94.4 

129.8 

220.7 

Credit Experiences (percent of families with): 

  Payment-to-income ratio greater than 40% 

6 

9 

8 

9 

  Late on payments 60 days or more 

5 

10 

4 

9 

  Denied credit or feared denial 

15 

35 

32 

25 



Table 2. Mean and median net worth by race and educational attainment of head, 2013-16 surveys
 

Thousands of 2016 dollars  

  

Median net worth 

Mean net worth 

2013 

2016 

2013 

2016 

No bachelor’s degree 

  White 

87.1 

98.1 

323.1 

367.8 

  Black 

10.3 

11.6 

78.9 

99.3 

  Hispanic 

13.1 

17.5 

76.3 

105.7 

  Other 

17.4 

34.3 

128.8 

183.7 

Bachelor’s degree or higher 

  White 

375.5 

397.1 

1,440.1 

1,821.3 

  Black 

36.8 

68.2 

184.4 

271.2 

  Hispanic 

58.0 

77.9 

401.8 

609.6 

  Other 

216.1 

210.2 

813.0 

941.0 

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