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'Almighty debt' too typical in Black community

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/12/2011, 5:24 p.m.

CNN's latest installment of "Black in America" puts faces of color on the economic crisis. As more Black Americans lose their homes and their jobs at rates much higher than whites, debt is also a leading problem when it comes to finances in the Black community.

Debt income ratios have been different between Blacks and whites since the early 1960s. Low-income communities and neighborhoods are hit particularly the hardest. Banks are scarce in these areas, leaving a small number of options to open checking and savings accounts.

As an alternative, the use of check cashing establishments and pawnbrokers has become a regular practice, which usually results in large fees. Payday advances and credit cards with large interest rates are also an option.

In a 2007 study by New York-based public policy research and advocacy organization Demos, over 90 percent of African-American families earning between $10,000 and $24,999 had credit card debt, and in 2004, of those with credit cards, 84 percent of African-American households carried credit card debt, compared with 54 percent of white households.

In a 2009 survey conducted by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, 51 percent of Blacks admitted to not paying their bills on time. One in three African-Americans has at least two credit cards, while nearly half of African-Americans report not having a credit card at all.

Black college students also fall mercy to debt. In a study released this year by the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, 27 percent of Black bachelor's degree recipients in 2007-2008 borrowed $30,500 or more, compared with 16 percent of whites, 14 percent of Hispanics and 9 percent of Asians.

However, there is hope for those looking to tackle their monster of debt. Free and low-cost credit counseling is available from nonprofit organizations throughout the city. For example, the Department of Consumer Affairs Office of Financial Empowerment helps people in need of assistance.

"We provide free one-on-one financial counseling," said DCA Commissioner Jonathan Mintz. "Not only do we give advice, we also show people how to deal with their creditors."

Mintz said that the Office of Financial Empowerment has saved New Yorkers $2.5 million since the first Financial Empowerment Center was opened two years ago. Today, there are 20 centers in the city that offer their services.

"We have trained professionals that go through each situation confidently, and we offer this service in multiple languages," Mintz said.

The commissioner warns consumers to stay clear of companies, mostly ones advertised on TV, that promise to wipe out debt. He said these companies can often do more harm than help, and that many of them ask for money upfront, oftentimes delaying payment, and can even make a person's credit score worse.

"Debt settlement companies are trouble," said Mintz. "They are predatory businesses that squeeze out those last remaining dollars and often charge upfront fees. Even if they are legitimate, they are risky and damaging."

Nonprofit organization Credit Where Credit is Due (CWCID) operates six sites in Manhattan and helps people with financial issues, including debt management. In operation for 15 years, the goal of the organization is to get people on the right track financially.

"Our services range from helping with credit to budgeting, and even calling and negotiating with debt collectors," said Christyne Angulo of CWCID. "We also help people with bankruptcy if that's an option. We tailor a program for each person that comes in, and it's not just for low-income people."

CWCID also provides a five-week class to help jumpstart financial freedom.

For more information about free debt help, call 311 or log onto www.nyc.gov/protectyourmoney.