KEVIN COLEMAN doesn't need a thick, glossy report from the Pew Research Center to tell him that the wealth of black families in America has decreased sharply since the middle of the 2000s. He's lived it.
The Philadelphia man raised five kids as a single dad after a bad marriage to a woman who struggled with drug addiction, and he even saved enough in a 15-year run as a full-time cable-TV installer to finally buy a home in Olney in 2006 - right at the peak of the housing boom.
Then came the crash of 2008, and Coleman lost his job. Within a matter of months, he'd lost the home as well - to foreclosure - and thus any equity he'd accumulated on the house.
"It's just the way of the world," said Coleman, who has stoically dealt with the brutal economic downturn even after he and three daughters who are still in school moved in first with his mother, then later with Coleman's new girlfriend. "It's the recession."
For sure. But Coleman, 53, is also warm-blooded proof of some cold statistics regarding the traditional gap in wealth, or net worth, between African-American households and their white counterparts - numbers that startled many Americans when they were revealed earlier this summer.
You read that right. Twenty times. Twenty. Two-zero.
In raw numbers the median net worth of white households in America, according to Pew, which relied on 2009 data from the federal government, is now $113,149.
The median wealth of African-American households? Just $5,677.
Hispanic families don't fare much better than do blacks. Their median wealth is 1/18th that of whites.
Although the wealth gap between whites and minorities has existed ever since studies of the topic began, it did narrow dramatically over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. That was partly because of gains for African-Americans in the workplace in the booming '90s, and then because of greater homeownership among black families.
Nearly a half-century after the civil-rights era, many blacks have made remarkable strides in the workplace and in professions like medicine or law - not to mention the White House. But the statistics show that too many minorities are still left behind in poverty or the increasing struggles of the lower middle class.
But why did the disparity - which was 12-1 when the survey started in 1984 but fell to just 7-1 in 1995 and was back to 11-1 in 2004 - explode to a record high in just the past five years?
The bulk of the answer can be given in one word: housing.
Black and Latinos - especially families that had saved enough for a down payment during the low-unemployment years of the 1990s - were aggressive about plunging into the housing market in the early and mid-2000s. They were enticed by low interest rates and especially subprime mortgages with initial low payments.
When the housing bubble burst, so did black-family wealth, which according to the Pew study plunged by a whopping 55 percent from 2004 to 2009. In fact, more than one in three black households - 35 percent - are now under water, with zero wealth or a negative net worth. Typically, that's because their house has plummeted in value.
"We saw it coming," said John Dodds, longtime head of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, which has focused considerable attention in recent years in seeking government aid for families like Coleman's either in foreclosure or on the brink of losing their house.
Typically, Dodds noted, minority families that bought homes in the early 2000s when the housing bubble was still inflating were living on the edge - and many then fell off the proverbial cliff when the broader economy crashed in 2008.
"They didn't have a lot of cash," said Dodds. "They didn't have a relative who could write a check for them."
Current statistics show that the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 16.7 percent, the highest it's been since 1984 and roughly double the jobless rate of whites.
But when it comes to net worth, the massive 20-1 disparity is also driven in part by generations of inequality in the workforce, beginning in the years when blacks suffered from segregation in the South and exclusion from trade unions in the North. That's because a major source of family wealth is through inheritance, and the short-lived rise in black net worth in the 1990s didn't last long enough to change the basic math on that front.
Timothy Smeeding, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, said that another factor is that a lot of white households, especially among baby boomers, were more heavily staked in the stock market, through retirement funds or other accounts. And Wall Street, though battered, has bounced back more quickly since 2008 than the housing market.
"The main asset of the middle class is their home," Smeeding said, but unfortunately many black and Latino buyers were enticed into the market when prices were at an unusual high. Smeeding has been advocating for a government-backed program of loan modification, instead of foreclosure, that would allow more families to stay in their homes until prices - and thus net worth - recover.
But Amadu J. Kaba, an associate professor of sociology at Seton Hall who has also studied the black-white wealth gap, noted that housing isn't the only factor holding down wealth in minority communities. For example, he pointed out that statistics show blacks are less likely than whites to have health insurance - and thus can be wiped out by a serious illness.
Many middle-class families, especially minorities, also went deep into student-loan debt in the 2000s because of the high cost of college education - only to find few well-paying jobs for graduates available in the 2010s.
Meanwhile, Coleman said he's been unfazed by his own foreclosure and loss of wealth. Over the past three years, he's continually looked for and sometimes found temporary work as a cable installer, commuting as far as Maryland, and he's studied for his commercial driver's license as a fallback.
He also says he hasn't given up on the American dream of homeownership - for a second time.