US & Canada

African-American women struggle to overcome wealth gap

Call it a tale of three women. In the most hard-scrabble parts of South Carolina, Kenya Williams, Natisha Boston and Germaine Jenkins are all struggling to overcome personal hardship and overwhelming odds.

Image caption Single mother-of-three Kenya Williams earns $330 (£217) per week

In their own ways, all three are succeeding.

A recent academic study found that the gap in wealth between white and black Americans had more than quadrupled between 1984 and 2007.

A quarter of all black families, it said, have no assets at all.

That is certainly true of of Kenya Williams, a 35-year-old single mother with three girls. On the day I visit her modest home in rural Allendale County, she has just $17 (£11.20) to her name.

"I'm gonna make this 17 scratch me all the way till I get paid," Ms Williams says, sounding matter-of-fact.

She gets up before dawn every work day to catch a bus to her house-keeping job at the coastal resort town of Hilton Head, 70 miles away. The job earns her about $330 (£217) a week.

She's lucky to have a job at all. Unemployment in Allendale, at 22%, is well over twice the national average.

"Week to week, paycheck to paycheck," is how she describes her existence.

Break the cycle

The prospects, you'd think, are bleak. But Kenya Williams is far from downhearted. With the help of Allendale County ALIVE, a community development corporation, she's learning how to manage her finances.

"They show me how to budget my money," she says.

Treyonde Allen runs ALIVE's classes in basic book-keeping. She's on a mission to break a cycle of ingrained and inherited poverty.

"I'm trying to instil a culture of saving and budgeting for the entire household," she says.

Ms Allen also warns students of the dangers posed by predatory lenders and lives lived on credit.

"Don't sign up for a credit card just because they're going to give you a piece of pizza and a T-shirt," she tells them. "That stops something right there."

The reasons for long-term, persistent black poverty are many and complex, but it all starts with history.

"In this country we call America, for more than 250 years, African-Americans were property," says Anton Gunn, an African-American member of South Carolina's House of Representatives.

We meet at Mr Gunn's favourite diner on the edge of the state capital, Columbia. The Waffle House sits, appropriately enough, on Hardscrabble Road.

"African-Americans have just started... to be able to obtain and own anything," he says.

But, lacking financial experience, they still lag far behind.

"There's a difference between being on the team and being strong enough, fast enough and smart enough to actually play in the game," says Mr Gunn, a former college football player.

'Turning life around'

Natisha Boston admits that for most of her life, it did not even occur to her to try.

"I used to have a nasty attitude," she says. "I just didn't care."

But this 34-year-old mother-of-three (two fathers, both of whom have spent time in jail) is also turning her life around, with the help of Metanoia, an award-winning community development corporation in one of the tougher neighbourhoods of North Charleston.

Ms Boston has cleaned up her credit and completed literacy and home-buying programmes.

"They want us all to own our own homes," she says. "We want to have something for our kids to have when they get older."

She shows me a thick folder of study materials from the courses she has taken. Advice on credit cards, the basics of borrowing, bank loans and much besides.

They are things she had never thought applied to her - things she now regards as essential.

"If you want to leave a landmark for your kids," she says. "Something that they can pass on and pass on and pass on."

With its boarded-up shops and general air of decay, the Chicora-Cherokee neighbourhood of North Charleston doesn't look like the kind of place where anyone could accumulate wealth, let alone pass it on.

But this can change, says Metanoia's chief executive officer, the Rev Bill Stanfield.

"Our financial literacy classes that we have really encourage savings," he says.

Metanoia offers incentives to young students to start saving early and to finish high school. The organisation promises to match anything students put aside by the time they graduate, up to a certain amount.

"All of this is an effort to encourage folks to build assets," the Rev Stanfield says.

Sometimes, those assets take highly individual forms.

A 'hero'

The Rev Stanfield calls Germaine Jenkins his "hero".

In the kitchen garden she has created on waste ground around her small house, Ms Jenkins is surrounded by the fruits - and vegetables - of her labour.

Image caption Germaine Jenkins is building a website to pass on tips on healthy, thrifty living

Blueberries, asparagus, zucchini, onions, pineapple, guava. The list goes on. There's nothing Ms Jenkins won't try to grow.

There are eggs, too, from her chickens, Smooth Criminal and Santo.

Not bad for a city girl, born into poverty in faraway Cleveland, Ohio.

"It wasn't till I came here and had this experience with hunger in my own household that I said I got to figure out how to grow food," Ms Jenkins says.

With Metanoia's help, Ms Jenkins and her husband have bought and improved their single-storey house. It holds a hardwood floor where she and her daughter practise African dance, lots of the books she uses to home-school her children, and a computer.

She is building a website devoted to passing on her tips on healthy, thrifty living.

Ms Jenkins is now an expert in the economics of supermarket coupons ("have a realistic goal... start working towards 50% reduction in grocery costs") and "time-banking" (earn "time dollars" by doing something for someone else and then spend them by having someone else do something for you).

Modestly, she says she owes it all to the house.

"There wouldn't be a website," she says. "I wouldn't be home-schooling my son. There wouldn't be any garden if I was still in public housing or worse yet an apartment, trying non-stop to make that rent.

"It's awesome to come home every day, open the door to something that's ours."

With a bit of help, a lot of imagination and a relentlessly positive attitude, the Jenkins' prospects seem good.

But Bernie Mazyck, president of the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, says narrowing the wealth gap in America needs to start with a more honest conversation about how we got here.

"There are reasons why blacks are still behind the ball when it comes to accumulating wealth," he says. "It's a conversation of basic economics."

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