July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, a time for spotlighting mental health issues specific to marginalized communities across the United States. A key factor impacting mental health is economic inequality, an issue exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black and Hispanic women earn just 70% of the hourly wages that white men with similar educational backgrounds earn, a stat that Barnard community members work to combat both on and off campus.

The College’s Feel Well, Do Well initiative, for example, takes on this challenge by offering a holistic, campus-wide approach to student wellness, providing mental health services and physical health programs that fall under a comprehensive support system. Barnard’s new Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being, made possible by a generous gift from the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation, is a centralized hub and umbrella organization for the College's many Feel Well, Do Well @ Barnard wellness initiatives and will occupy renovated spaces within Barnard Hall for financial fluency and wellness programs.

In April, economics professor Belinda Archibong testified during the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee’s hearing titled “Vaccinations and the Economic Recovery,” addressing the “widened racial and gender disparities in employment, health, and wealth” caused by the pandemic. And this July, President Sian Leah Beilock published the op-ed “President Speaks: Colleges Must Do More to Close the Gender Gap in Financial Fluency” in Higher Ed Dive.

Alumna Joanna Smith-Ramani ’98 creates solutions for financial well-being by examining the racial and gender wealth gaps as managing director of the Aspen Institute’s Financial Security Program, which seeks to combat wealth inequality to form a more inclusive economy. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in urban studies and earning a master’s in public policy from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Smith-Ramani helped provide financial resources for low-income communities as director of the CASH Campaign of Maryland. Earlier this May, Smith-Ramani returned to Barnard as a host speaker at the “Resetting the Wealth Agenda” event, co-presented by the Alumnae Association of Barnard College and the Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being. 

In this “Break This Down” interview, Smith-Ramani shares her expertise on the connections between psychological and financial well-being and how we can create more just economic structures.

How does financial well-being affect one’s mental health? 

There is a strong connection between financial well-being and both mental and physical health, and it can be a virtuous or vicious cycle. There are numerous studies — both pre- and during COVID — that identify money as the number-one stressor of Americans. Those financial challenges cause serious stress, made worse by the kinds of essentials that people forgo because of money, such as food and healthcare. The stress is harmful to a person’s mental and physical health, which then can have debilitating impacts on one’s ability to work, earn money, and make financial decisions. Additionally, the financial stress that results in health issues can create additional healthcare-related costs, resulting in even more financial challenges. It can cause anxiety, weight gain, depression, digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, and memory and concentration impairment. This stress is serious. In fact, 16% of all suicides are in response to financial problems.  

What should we all know about the systemic conditions that create racial and gendered wealth gaps?

Financial security is not experienced equally. America’s long, brutal history of racist policies in housing, education, financial services, labor laws, criminal justice, and more has produced massive racial inequality that is fueling an ever-widening racial wealth gap. There is no simple one policy that has done this but a series of purposeful, intertwining, and interacting sets of policies over our country’s entire history. Where it has left us is: The typical white family owns 10 times as much wealth as their Black counterparts and 7.5 times as much wealth as their Hispanic counterparts. Stark differences also exist for Indigenous populations and other communities of color. Furthermore, when racial or ethnic identities intersect with poverty, LGBTQ+ status, gender, disability, or immigrant status, the impediments to achieving financial security are more pronounced.  

Where we are now is that incomes have stagnated; expenses are rising; short- and long-term savings have declined; and debt is rising, especially among millennials and people of color. The economic impact of COVID-19 has exacerbated many of the financial challenges families are facing and systems set up to support them.  

How has COVID-19 impacted economic security and mobility for women of color in particular? 

The honest and devastating truth is that women of color are almost always doing worse than their white counterparts. This is true in income earned, in wealth attained, and in debt owed. And to be clear, this is not because there is something “wrong” with the way women of color earn or manage their finances. It is due to the intersecting systemic problems that have harmed communities of color and women.  

Unsurprisingly then, the pandemic has had a worse impact on the financial well-being of women of color. Women generally, and Black and Latina women in particular, have faced higher job loss than men. Women of color are also more likely than white women to be in service sector jobs and unable to work remotely — increasing the likelihood of job loss during the pandemic and increased health risks if they were able to go into work. Finally, Black women are more likely to take on caregiving responsibilities, juggling both paid work and virtual school and child care — a challenging, if not impossible, task.  

How can we work to create a more equitable economy and support financial security for marginalized groups? 

While there is important work the private sector can and should do to create a more equitable economy, ultimately changing our country’s course and truly delivering on our founding principles starts and ends with policy. Throughout our nation’s history, narratives around who has wealth and why have served to maintain the material benefits of whiteness and justified treating those who struggle financially as though they can’t be trusted to make their own choices. This outcome is abetted by the current practice of policymaking, where the beliefs, interests, and ideological attitudes of those making policy are given far greater credence than the actual needs, wants, and experiences of those impacted by said policy. As a result, bias and assumptions are translated into inequitable and exclusionary policies and programs. Confronting this legacy of racial exclusion, as well as the contemporary acts to maintain them, requires affirmatively anti-racist policies. This is why we must keep calling for accountable government and social policies that prioritize equity and justice. And, looking within, we need to discern and confront racism and other learned prejudices in our everyday lives, seeking to understand and dismantle ways that we have either benefited from or perpetuated discrimination and injustice.  

What do you hope Barnard alumnae who attended your recent discussion, “Resetting the Wealth Agenda,” will take away from the event?

As I said during the event, I know everyone can do something. Everything from political advocacy and activism to challenging our own complicities with the current system will move us to a better, more inclusive country. Barnard graduates hold political office; we run companies and employ people. We write for newspapers and conduct important research. We have networks of family and friends that value our opinions and look to us for answers. We have to move from words to actions so that we can establish an economy that not only looks great on paper but also works — really, sincerely works — for the millions of people across the U.S. who need a voice at the table and well-designed policies to help them build a more prosperous future.  


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