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White adults receive the most financial help from older relatives, poll shows

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

White adults are over twice as likely as others to get sizable financial help from parents. That is one finding from a new poll by NPR and Harvard University that sheds light on America's stark racial wealth gap. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Angela Chevaux and her husband have made a good living in York, Pa. She's an insurance claims supervisor, and he's in construction. But still, a recent inheritance from her father-in-law has been life-changing. He left them a retirement account, a life insurance policy, an annuity. And her husband and his brother inherited an old farmhouse in a secluded spot with a pond.

ANGELA CHEVAUX: We were able to buy the property, the other half, out from his brother at a decent price instead of putting them on - you know, getting it appraised and having to sell it and buy it back.

LUDDEN: They're renovating that to live in and selling their own house, saying goodbye to 11 more years of payments.

CHEVAUX: We'll be mortgage-free at 50 and 59.

LUDDEN: Her father-in-law also left Chevaux's 24-year-old son a money market account.

CHEVAUX: He had given our son some money towards college before he passed. So then this allowed him to pay off the rest of his college debt, which wasn't significant.

LUDDEN: Her son has invested the rest of his inheritance and plans to use that to help buy a house. Thirty-eight percent of white adults say they've gotten at least $10,000 in gifts or loans from a parent or older relative. That's according to a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dorothy Brown is a tax law professor at Georgetown University, and she wishes more white families would talk about these intergenerational benefits.

DOROTHY BROWN: Because you have Black Americans who are doing everything they were told is right and not getting ahead. And they're scratching their heads wondering, how come I'm not doing better than I am? How come I'm not doing better than the guy in the cubicle next to me?

LUDDEN: The poll finds only 14% of Black adults receive similar gifts or loans. The share is 16% for Latinos and 19% for Native Americans. Brown says this divide reflects a century and more of segregation and systemic racism, including in federal housing policies.

BROWN: So if your grandparent got a home that was FHA insured, it was a result of their being white. You don't think about that, but it was.

LUDDEN: For African Americans especially, Brown says the generational wealth transfer is more likely to go the other way - children helping parents who suffered under Jim Crow.

THEODORE BAILEY: My father died when I was 3 years old. My mother was a single mother with four sons.

LUDDEN: Theodore Bailey is 76 and remembers a tough childhood in segregated Nashville. His dad died while he was a military cook in World War II. That led to a major break for Bailey. As a war orphan, he was able to go to college on the GI Bill. It launched his successful career as an engineer and missile designer. And from early on, he helped his mother get by.

BAILEY: Yeah. I knew she was struggling, you know? And at the time, I didn't have a whole lot to spare, but I'd send her whatever I could. I'd send her some money.

LUDDEN: Now retired in Arizona, Bailey says he's always helped family - bailing out a brother who lost a job, sending grandchildren to college and others.

BAILEY: Oh, there's always cousins and nephews and (inaudible) that want to borrow money. And a lot of times, they don't pay back.

LUDDEN: Research shows family help like this seriously depletes the wealth of college-educated Black Americans. Bailey says he's having to cash out more of his IRA than he'd like to in this bad market to meet his own expenses.

ROBERT BLENDON: When people talk about the American dream, it's here.

LUDDEN: Robert Blendon is a Harvard professor emeritus of health policy who worked on the new poll. He says you can see the racial wealth gap in lots of its other findings. The large number of Black, Latino and Native American adults who want to move to better housing expect their children to go to college but say they can't afford it.

BLENDON: These minority communities are either going to have to borrow everything in a very risky environment for that, and they don't have anything to at least help defray some of the costs.

LUDDEN: What's at stake, he says, is the ability to make the choices that can help families and future generations move ahead. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.