NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health recently polled 1,081 African-Americans about their lives. One of the areas respondents were asked about was their perceptions of their financial status.
As Code Switch's Gene Demby reported in an earlier post, the effects of the housing crisis and a recession — both of which disproportionately affected African-Americans — didn't seem to dampen a sense of optimism and overall life satisfaction among respondents. But the survey did reveal a dramatic — if not exactly surprising — split between two evenly divided groups of respondents: 49 percent who saw their financial situations as "excellent" or "good," and 50 percent who described their finances as "poor" or "not good."
This finding mirrors attitudes of African-American respondents to a 2001 survey by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University. Then, the stats were similar: 49 percent polled saw their financial situations as "excellent" or "good," and 51 percent considered them "poor" or "not so good."
Robert Blendon, a professor of public health at Harvard and one of the 2013 study's co-directors, told NPR's Kathy Lohr that many African-Americans who don't consider themselves well-situated financially still have a sense of optimism. A combined 81 percent of respondents said they would one day attain the American dream — owning their own home, gaining financial security — or already had. Only 16 percent said they felt the dream was out of reach.
"That sense of optimism, with all the problems we found, is really a very important thing to recognize," Blendon told Lohr. "That's what carries people through life, is their sense that things can be a lot better for them in the future."
In many cases, Blendon said that this attitude stems from the fact that many of the participants said they thought they were doing better than their parents did, even amid fears of job stability.
Fifty-six percent of blacks considered themselves better off than their parents when they were their age. Only 14 percent thought of themselves as worse off, while 28 percent considered themselves about the same.
The split in perceptions tracks with a similar divide in attitudes throughout the rest of the poll. One of the starkest differences between the two groups was the degree of job security they reported. Fifty-eight percent of employed respondents with a negative view of their finances said they were very or somewhat concerned that they or someone in their household might lose their job. Only 32 percent of those employed respondents with positive feelings about their finances had that same worry.
Health followed a similar path: A whopping 80 percent of financially stable respondents considered themselves to have excellent or very good health. Contrast that with 64 percent of folks who felt their economic situations were not so good or poor.
For folks like Chinenye Oparah — who is in his 30s and has an industrial engineering degree from Georgia Tech — recent times have been trying. Oparah has worked in construction and in the Fayetteville, Ga., school district. Having been laid off from both jobs, he now works for himself; he got a contract to remove computer systems and projectors from schools that are closing. But it's not a full-time job.
"I actually kind of like working hard," Oparah told Lohr. "But it's been a struggle to balance working hard and bringing home enough to sustain and then spending time with family, spending time with our daughter."
Still, he told Lohr he remains hopeful that things will turn around for his family.
"I'm optimistic about us," he said, "and hopeful, faithful, prayerful that something is going to work out in the very near future."