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Boom time lifts fortunes of minorities


With the record U.S. economic boom well into its 10th year, evidence continues to show that growth is broad-based, improving the lives of millions of Americans who didn't participate in past periods of prosperity.

Indeed, a new study shows that the 1990s and the first part of 2000 have been a particularly prosperous stretch - both nationally and here in Maryland - for the four most prominent minority groups: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans and Native Americans.

This newest study, an annual undertaking by the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business, projects that between 1990 and 2001, the aggregate buying power of these four groups nationwide will have doubled (risen about 103 percent), while the overall buying power of U.S. consumers will have grown 70 percent.

The same will be true in Maryland, where minority buying power is projected to rise about 104 percent during that 11-year period, while the same measure among state consumers will have jumped about 65 percent.

"These minority groups have gotten an extra boost" in buying power, says Jeffrey M. Humphreys, the author of the study and the director of economic forecasting for the Terry College of Business.

"Buying power" is another word for disposable income - essentially what's left to spend on products and services once taxes are taken out of your paycheck.

It's an important figure, as it's chiefly through income growth that consumers improve their lot in life.

The buying-power jump is good news on several fronts.

First, though minorities are not the only groups afflicted by poverty, this leap in buying power should help the disadvantaged lift themselves out of that unenviable situation.

And second, as the buying power of minorities keeps rising, it forces companies to market products and services specifically to those groups - enriching the members' lifestyles.

"Companies can no longer afford to ignore these groups," Humphreys says.

Seeing growth

Maryland's minority markets are seeing plenty of growth - particularly African-Americans, who constitute about 28 percent of the state's population and who, by next year, will account for only 20 percent of all consumer buying power in the state.

During the 11 years of the study, buying power in this group is expected to have grown nearly 96 percent to $31.2 billion - the sixth-largest amount for African-Americans in any state, the study concludes.

That growth rate will be eclipsed by the faster-growing - though numerically smaller - Hispanic-American and Asian-American markets in Maryland.

Between 1990 and next year, disposable income will have grown an estimated 149 percent among Maryland's Hispanic population and 131 percent among Asians in the state, the study predicts.

Maryland's small Native American population will have seen a buying-power increase of about 91 percent during the same period.

Income growth among minorities has had a tangible impact in Maryland, economists say. For one thing, it has helped drop the state's poverty rate to the lowest in the nation.

Yet problems remain. Among minorities, per capita income tends to be below the prevailing average, and poverty levels also are higher than among whites, Humphreys concedes.

That's even true in Maryland - despite a median household income of $71,404, second only to Connecticut nationally, which suggests that many minorities are in the middle class or higher, economists say.

A different outlook

Despite the boom, a good deal of education and job training must be done if Maryland's disadvantaged - minority or not - are to benefit from the New Economy, says Anirban Basu, director of applied economics for RESI, the economic-forecasting and business consulting arm of Towson University.

"The lower 20 percent of Americans ... must be integrated into the economy," Basu says. "They're isolated. They're not online. They must be made part of the economy. The outlook for them is very different" - and more grim - than for everyone else, unless changes are made.

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