Bridging the racial wealth gap

The 2010 Census reported that the median net worth of African-American families was $4,955—22 times less than the $110,729 median net worth of white American families. This disparity has been referred to as the racial wealth gap, and it has been growing exponentially since the 1980s.

The Wharton School’s Field Application Project (FAP) is working to offset this inequity with its “Building Bridges to Wealth” program, which teaches financial literacy to underserved communities.

“We started the program because of the wealth gap,” says Keith Weigelt, the Marks-Darivoff Family Professor at Wharton and faculty coordinator of the FAP. He says its goal is to “increase the investment returns of black families,” who often lack basic financial knowledge and opportunities for “higher return investment vehicles.”

The FAP operates two “Building Bridges to Wealth” courses at no cost to the community: a yearlong program for elementary and high school students, and a weekend program for adults.

“Our idea is you teach grammar school, high school, and adults, and you try to get the whole family together talking about financial literacy,” Weigelt says. “That’s why we’re trying to hit all age groups here.”

Weigelt has created a six-course business curriculum for disadvantaged high school students, whose schools often lack even basic business training. He says they essentially teach students the same concepts that are taught at Wharton.

“Building Bridges to Wealth” currently teaches financial literacy to students at KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, Parkway West High School, Kensington Business High School, and Lincoln High School. The program has previously served pupils at Lea, Alexander Wilson, and Huey elementary schools, Eastern University Academy Charter School, and University City and West Philadelphia high schools.

Students are taught budgeting, check-writing, saving, and compound interest. The curriculum also covers the differences between credit and debit cards, and checking and savings accounts, as well as the importance of maintaining a high credit score and investing in stocks and mutual funds.

“We talk about needs and wants,” Weigelt says. “Teenagers are very status-oriented, and they seem to waste a lot of money on stuff like [$200 sneakers], so we try to teach them that early.”

Assisting Weigelt in the classroom are Wharton undergraduate students, including senior Steven Levick, the head teaching assistant. Levick has been with “Building Bridges to Wealth” since his sophomore year and helped set objectives for elementary and high school students. 

“Financial literacy is so important,” he says. “Having the knowledge of how to manage your money in a responsible way is a really important life skill, no matter what type of background you come from.”

Levick says the program for elementary kids is slightly different than the one for high school students, but a lot of the skill sets are commensurable. With both groups, he says the focus is on “the importance of saving money and really thinking responsibly about how you spend your money.”

He says his first lesson discusses what money is and why it exists.

In the elementary program, Levick says they try to tie the math of financial literacy into the math that the students are learning in class, such as algebra. The high school program is unique in its promotion of occupational skills, such as saving money and how to open a bank account.

“A lot of the high school students already have jobs, so they already have a paycheck,” he says. “We want them to budget their paycheck and the money that’s coming for them in a really thoughtful way.”

The program also instructs students on the financial aid process, interviewing skills, writing a résumé, job searching, and how the sticker price of college is rarely the price that a student will actually pay.

Weigelt says they are pleased at the response from students.

“We’ve had high school teachers tell us that students who normally don’t show up [for school] show up when we’re there,” he says.

The adult program is a 10-week series held on Saturdays at the Wharton School. The most recent session, which concluded in January, had 350 applicants and 160 enrollees.

Weigelt says he begins the adult course by explaining the racial wealth gap.

“I say, ‘Our goal here is to make you more wealthy,’” he says. “Most people don’t realize that the wealth gap is that huge. They’re just shocked. You hear this gasp that goes through the room every single time you show it to them.”

His first lesson focuses on the importance on budgeting; they later tackle ways of getting rid of credit card debt and tips for obtaining a high credit score. After the adults graduate from the program, Weigelt and staff help them create what he calls “communities of wealth” where they have the adults in the class set up savings and investing groups and get a donor to give them money to invest in a mutual fund.

“That’s how we get them into stocks, where the return is much higher,” he says.

Wharton undergraduates are working with some of the adults on developing their entrepreneurial ideas. A cook in one of the dorms is interested in opening a kosher food truck on campus, so the program is trying to find him funding.

Weigelt says they have received positive feedback about the program, and have seen a substantial increase in financial literacy, from adults, as well.

“People will come up and they’ll be crying and they’ll say, ‘I had no hope that I could ever get out of poverty. You’ve given me opportunity,’” he says. “It’s really pretty strong.”

For more information about the “Building Bridges to Wealth” program, visit

Building Bridges