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The current crisis in U.S. financial institutions, along with record-breaking home foreclosures, higher unemployment rates, and skyrocketing gas prices, has given many Americans reason to pause, if not panic. Though the federal government has stepped in to help calm the public fear by bailing out certain institutions, as the old saying goes “when White America catches a cold, Black America catches the flu.”

And it is no different in this case. There’s little question that working-class and poor Americans are catching the brunt of what some pundits have called a recession. In this election season however, the working class and so-called working poor are often recalled only in relation to branding one presidential candidate an elitist and the other as out-of-touch with the economic mainstream.

Yet clearly the presidential candidates have been directing their economic rhetoric at the middle-class. Perhaps rightfully so, given widespread perceptions that the middle class sees its own financial stability as tied to the housing market and investment banking, particularly for those who hold 401K plans and various other IRA and pension plans.

But what exactly do we mean by the “middle class?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication notes that there’s no standard definition to “middle class,” observing that the vast majority of Americans view themselves as middle-class.  Even the presidential candidates seem unable to agree, as Senator McCain recently suggested (admittedly, in jest) that $5 million per year is the dividing line between being middle-class and rich.

In the absence of clear definitions that also account for social factors like geography, education and social class standing (a college professor making $40,000 a year has more social standing than an electrician that makes three times as much), most pundits use median income as a marker of middle-class status. According to 2005 census data, the median income for American families was a little more than $56,000. But when that data is adjusted for race, the median income for blacks is nearly $20,000 less than it is for whites.

When one looks at the comparisons between black and white incomes between $35,000 and $75,000, there is noticeable parity. However, for all of the egalitarian talk that those numbers might suggest, the reality is that middle-class blacks and whites who might live in the same neighborhoods, send their kids to the same private schools, and earn the same annual incomes are not equal.

What separates middle-class blacks and whites is the issue of wealth, determined by financial assets such as property ownership, investments, savings and a range of other holdings. According to Thomas M. Shapiro in his controversial book The Hidden Cost of Being African-American, the financial worth of a typical white family is $81,000 versus only $8,000 for a typical black family.

In terms of home ownership, blacks have longed been plagued by loan practices that force them to pay higher mortgage rates, thus ultimately paying more money for houses that are worth the same as their white peers. Such practices impact blacks not simply in terms of on-hand cash each month, but also in their ability to generate equity in their homes. Home equity can translate into financial flexibility when it comes to paying for their children’s college tuition, long-term health care and simply improving the value of their homes through home improvements.

Another reason for the discrepancy has to do with the role of parental assistance. Many middle-class whites are given a head start on wealth accumulation via their parents (i.e. covering the cost of college and graduate or professional schooling, providing down-payment assistance for first homes, child care for their grand-children, etc). Such support is often the difference between living with debt and having the ability to save money.

Increasingly, young blacks also benefit from the assistance of their parents, but as Shapiro notes, they provide financial support for family members, particularly aging parents, more often than their white peers. Shapiro argues that blacks are “more susceptible to falling from middle class grace, less capable of cushioning hard times, and less able to retool careers and change directions.” This is particularly so for those who are first generation middle-class.

Unfortunately, the very group who accepted that higher education was the vehicle to middle-class success now finds that there is no golden parachute—like the one the government has provided for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, etc. Their just-in-case war chest to protect them from being allowed in the game too late and with too little backup resources is non-existent.

Wealth remains just as difficult to attain for contemporary black Americans as it might have been for generations before, despite how many digits on our paychecks. And the lack of it is precisely why the current U.S. financial crisis poses an even greater threat to the black middle-class.