Insights From Michelle Singletary: Diversity in Financial Services

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Author, writer of The Color of Money column in The Washington Post, and TV and radio guest Michelle Singletary addressed a critical subject in the finance industry during her interview on The Long View. Along with the coronavirus pandemic, there is another force plaguing the world with long-lasting economic impacts: […]

Author, writer of The Color of Money column in The Washington Post, and TV and radio guest Michelle Singletary addressed a critical subject in the finance industry during her interview on The Long View. Along with the coronavirus pandemic, there is another force plaguing the world with long-lasting economic impacts: the lack of diversity in financial services.  

Singletary’s message is simple: We need diversity. Without it, the racial wealth gap will continue to widen and a diverse population of investors will remain underrepresented, underserved, and underappreciated.  

Here are excerpts from Singletary’s conversation:  

The Disproportionate Impacts on People of Color During Crisis 
Singletary: I wrote about a report out of the Urban Institute Housing Policy Center. They were looking at past crises and storms and how they impacted homeownership for African Americans. In all these storms–the Great Recession, Hurricane Katrina, and now even COVID-19–the frontline workers, those low-income workers, many disproportionately made up of African Americans and minorities, lost their jobs first. They’re going to be unemployed longer, and they’re going to have a harder time on the back end of this becoming employed again.  

The Factors Still in Play Today 
Singletary:
There’s still employment discrimination; there’s still a huge pay gap. African Americans with the same resume and same job history are less likely to get a call back for a job than a white American. And so, they can’t recover as fast. And without a job, without employment, and without equal pay, it impacts their ability to buy a home. We know that home equity for most Americans, even though Morningstar is all about investing, but we know that for most Americans, their net worth is tied up in the equity in their home. 

In 2020, the homeownership rate for African Americans is about the same as it was when housing discrimination was legal. It’s through home equity that families can leave money to their heirs, maybe borrow from it to help somebody with a down payment. It is there for you in times of trouble that you can tap. Because of discriminatory practices, African American homes in similar communities with the same type of amenities aren’t appreciated the same as that home in a predominantly white neighborhood. We feel that because it [COVID-19] hit so quickly and it hit so hard, and we may be dealing with this for another 18 months to two years, it will surely impact the ability of African Americans to buy a home. 

Where to Begin Making Changes 
Singletary: We address it on different avenues. There has to be a convergence of a lot of things.  

One policy idea is home down-payment programs to make homeownership more accessible to people who are making less and looking at lending to make sure that there’s no discrimination. During the Great Recession, there was a lot of predatory lending going on. African Americans with the same credit profile and income were getting loans at a much higher rate compared to white Americans. We need to make sure that homes that are similarly situated in black neighborhoods are not appraised at a lower value than homes in white neighborhoods. It’s not just having the policies in place but making sure people can get homes at an affordable rate. 

And then, on the personal side and more related to financial literacy is trying to help people understand when the right time is to buy a home. One of the top questions people ask me is should I buy a home, the interest rates are low, the prices are down. Don’t look at the interest rate, don’t look at what the markets doing, because none of that’s going to matter if you’re not prepared for that mortgage. If you’ve got a lot of student loan debt, you’ve got credit card debt, even a car loan, I just think you should get rid of all of that before you buy a home. 

How the Finance Industry Is Responsible 
Singletary: For a lot of people, it’s hard for them to pay for financial advice.   

The financial industry has always sort of shunned African Americans, thinking they don’t have money, and there are some that don’t, but there are a lot who do, and they need help. And people like to see people who look like them. They trust them. There’s certain dynamics of communities that you need to understand. Let’s not forget that African Americans were taken advantage of for decades, and so they’re very leery of financial planners, they are very leery of banks, and they are very leery of government for right reasons. 

So, you have to understand that. You got to come at them in a different way. You got to go where they are, whether there’s some sort of convention hall or they are in the community center. That’s where you have to go to reach out to them.  

My husband and I have had a financial planner for 15 years or more. We had an African American financial planner, and before the stocks sort of came crashing down, I was going through some paperwork and I saw her plan for us from about 15 years ago. We followed every piece of her advice and we are in such better shape. One of the things that she got us to do is not be so conservative in our portfolio because I told her I’m only going to be in bonds and I’m not going to be in the stocks. My grandmother was all about savings bonds and CDs–just savings products, she saw nothing else. My financial planner got me to realize that was not going to give me the growth that I needed. She encouraged us to save for our children in a 529 plan. Even though I work for personal finance, when 529 plans first started, I didn’t know a lot about it. She talked me through it, and we opened 529 plans for all our children. We sent and are sending all three of our children to college debt-free because of their 529 savings plans, because we saved for them over 20 years. 

It’s important that you understand and you have people who can understand some of those nuances of dealing with people from another race or whether they are women or black or a Latino, so that you can get past the barriers that they have of mistrust. 

Why the Finance Industry Needs Diversity   
Singletary: It is so important to have a diverse workforce, and I cannot believe that we are still having this conversation in 2020, that somehow people don’t realize that you need diversity. You need diversity in age. You need older financial planners and younger financial planners; you need women financial planners; you need black financial planners; you need Hispanic or Latino. You need planners who are people of faith. You have to embrace this idea that even though there are differences, we’re still the same. We still need to all save for retirement; we still are all going to age; we’re still going to all need to pay for long-term care. Don’t just sit back and say, oh, we can’t find anybody because you haven’t put in any money or time to train people to bring them up to serve a population that absolutely needs your help. 

This article was adapted from an interview that aired on Morningstar’s The Long View podcast. Listen to the full episode. 

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