Below the Bottom Rung of the Economic Ladder: What Would Maggie Walker Do?

Maggie Walker was a woman of remarkable achievements. The barriers she overcame in her lifetime not only included the stigmas of being a woman and a person of color, but also as a person with physical disabilities. Born in 1867 in Richmond, Virginia, just two years after the Civil War, Maggie would become the first female bank president of any race to charter a bank in the United States.

Disability and race have important impacts on well-being. It is well known that both people of color and people with disabilities face barriers to education and employment that limit earning potential and perpetuate financial instability, which are the overwhelming causes of poverty.

From data and research, we know that one in nine working-age adults (18-65) have a disability that put them at risk of exclusion from the economic mainstream. What is much less known is the prevalence of disability by race and ethnicity. African Americans are the most likely to have a disability (14 percent) and this disparity widens with age as a result of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and depression. By age 62, the prevalence of disability among African-Americans grows to 30 percent, as compared to 20 percent of their non-disabled peers.

People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed than their non-disabled peers, while eligibility for essential public benefits for survival (food, housing, healthcare, income) requires them to stay poor and restrict their savings to remain eligible. People living in poverty are also more likely to acquire a disability from lack of access to needed healthcare, healthy meals and safe housing.

Less known, however, is that nearly 40 percent of African Americans with disabilities live in poverty (as compared to 27 percent of all individuals with disabilities and 12 percent of all working-age adults without disabilities).

Even when adjusting for education level, African Americans with disabilities are more likely to be living in poverty than any other disability group (Latinos, White, Asian populations). Fifty-one percent of African Americans with disabilities with less than a high school degree are living in poverty, as compared to 39 percent of non-Hispanic Whites with disabilities. Racial disparity persists among adults with disabilities with higher levels of education as well; college graduates who are African American with disabilities live in poverty at a rate of 20 percent as compared to 13 percent of non-Hispanic White individuals with disabilities.

Analysis of U.S. Census data revealed other equally distressing statistics:

  • African Americans with disabilities had the lowest employment rate (25 percent);
  • Two-thirds of families headed by an African American with a disability are unbanked or underbanked, as compared to 40 percent of families headed by a person with a disability who is White or Hispanic;
  • One-third of adults with disabilities who were African American had difficulty paying their medical bills in the past 12 months, as compared to only 14 percent of adults without a disability; and
  • African Americans with a disability were the most likely, in the last 12 months, not to get medical care (17 percent) because of cost, as compared to any other demographic group.

In every community and in every state, there are a constellation of public agencies and nonprofits responding to an overwhelming need for temporary and more permanent affordable housing, food, healthcare, employment assistance and varying types of family support. Faith-based groups in the poorest neighborhoods often anchor the response to those below the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

I believe that, if Maggie Walker were still alive today, she would work to break down the walls between disability-focused organizations and organizations that support people of color. And that she would begin a new conversation about building a seamless system of supports that recognizes sensitivity to the diversity of disability and its prevalence in the African American community.

At a national level, financial, disability and African American community leaders must come together to design an inclusive set of strategies that lift people out of poverty and which cut across gender, race and disability.

In 2017, the next Maggie Walker must put the spotlight on disability, race and poverty for a new chapter in African American and disability history.

Since its inception in 2005, National Disability Institute (NDI) remains the first and only national nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to designing pathways to economic stability and mobility for persons with disabilities. Through public policy research and development and customized training and technical assistance, NDI has become a recognized leader nationwide demonstrating that individuals across the spectrum of disabilities can work, save for the future and advance their financial capability and economic stability. To learn more, visit Take the DISABLE POVERTY pledge at

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