Here are two of the issues that Radha Maharaj, a finance professor at UTM, aims to tackle in her “Wealth Building” workshops, which are specifically designed for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) students: U of T students’ very poor average financial literacy, and the persisting wealth gap between BIPOC and white people in Canada.

The workshop is hosted by the Hart House Black Futures program, which runs a variety of workshops, panel discussions, and events to create spaces specifically for the Black U of T community.

Maharaj has been running financial literacy workshops both within and outside U of T for a decade. Her latest series of workshops — which ran between January and February of this year — is the third iteration of her wealth-building workshop series at Hart House, specifically for BIPOC students.

The wealth-building workshops include typical personal finance lessons such as creating emergency funds, limiting excess spending, managing debt, and investing. In the latest series, Maharaj had participants use a “crypto investing simulator” to familiarize themselves with investing in cryptocurrency and understand how the volatility of markets may impact their personal financial goals. 

In emails to The Varsity, Maharaj emphasized that she has designed the workshops to encourage students to voice their own opinions and questions — including criticisms of the current financial system’s accessibility and queries about existing financial inequalities. 

Unexpected advice

In 2019, Maharaj ran a survey with 574 UTM students to test their average level of financial literacy. “68 per cent of the respondents received a grade [between] D- to D+,” Maharaj recounted. Yet, despite these abysmally low scores, respondents were still very optimistic about their personal level of financial literacy. Moreover, many participants responded that they felt they did not need to worry about managing their personal finances until they started earning higher incomes, something that Maharaj disputes. This survey is part of her inspiration for running the Hart House series.

One of the first things that Maharaj taught workshop participants, she wrote, is “[the] fundamental distinction between self-worth and net worth.” This lesson in itself is financial advice, Maharaj asserted, noting that conflating the two tends to cause individuals more anxiety and stress, and even a “keeping up with the Jones” mindset of social comparison, which ends up making individuals worse problem solvers and irresponsible spenders.

The distinction is especially important for BIPOC students to internalize, Maharaj described, since manifestations of racism from systemic oppression to everyday microaggressions can be very damaging to their individual self-perception. “As a female member of the BIPOC community myself, I can relate to the lived experience of many of the students who attend these workshops,” Maharaj wrote. 

Tackling systemic inequalities 

Economic inequality between BIPOC and white people in Canada is not a straightforward issue to understand — different racialized groups have different economic demographics and are affected by differing histories of migration and oppression in Canada. Intersectional factors such as gender and immigration status also play a role in wealth. 

However, there are clear general patterns in economic inequality between BIPOC and white people. A 2019 report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, drawing on 2016 census data, found that racialized people in Canada are more likely to be unemployed, to be born into a family in the bottom half of Canada’s income distribution, and to make a lower income on average compared to white people in Canada. 

The report also found that Black workers in Canada in particular are more likely to be unemployed and experience higher wage gaps than the average rates among all racialized groups. 

Maharaj pointed to a 2021 census from Statistics Canada, which found that individuals who identify as part of a visible minority — a term that the organization defines as covering racialized people who are not Indigenous — had poverty rates of 9.5 per cent, while individuals who do not identify as part of a visible minority had poverty rates of 6.5 per cent. 

Canada’s persisting racial wealth gap, she noted, is the result of “historical and systemic inequalities” in access to education, employment, and entrepreneurship. 

This is why Maharaj underscores the importance of BIPOC students increasing their capacity to earn money and strengthening their money management skills. She described that effective financial skills can give an individual better chances of getting hired, completing college or university, and starting their own businesses. Maharaj also noted that these skills help students avoid being taken advantage of by financial professionals and institutions like lending services, who are liable to deliberately confuse clients whose financial literacy skills are poor. 

Maharaj noted that these opportunities can serve to build BIPOC communities’ generational wealth — money and assets that families pass down to the next generation — allowing them to have better financial health and increased access to opportunities.