A new study from the Center for Community Economic Development indicates that single black women, even in their peak earning years, have a median net worth of only $5.

As reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the study also found that single white women between 36 and 49 have a median wealth of $42,600 -- well below the figure for single white men. But the finding that black women have virtually no assets at all stunned even the study's participants.

Meizhu Lui, who contributed to the report, told the Post-Gazette, "Even for those of us who have been looking at the wealth gap for a while, we were shocked and amazed at how little women of color have."

"If wealth was based on hard work, African-Americans would be the wealthiest people in our nation," Lui continued. "It's not about behavior. It's about government policies. Who does the government help and who is it not helping?

Net worth is measured by taking a person's assets -- their bank accounts, investments, and real property -- less their mortgages, outstanding loans, and other debts. The figures in the study were based on data from 2007, even before the current economic downturn, and would no doubt be worse now.

The median net worth figures for all working-age black and Hispanic women were almost flat, suggesting that for every such woman who does have significant assets there is another woman who is well over her head in debt. Black single mothers were the worst off of all.

"Black women, in general, were more likely to have participated in the subprime loan crisis," the Post-Gazette notes, "with upper-income black women being five times more likely to have received a high-cost mortgage than upper-income white men."

Even black women who were married or in a long-term relationship had a median net worth of only $31,500, compared to a figure of $167,500 for white women. And as the Post-Gazette further points out, "High unemployment and high incarceration rates for black men also lower the likelihood of single black women finding a partner to help build a more secure financial future."

The problems arising from high incarceration rates may only worsen in the future. According to a new study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, racial disparities in sentencing have been increasing over the last five years.

"Black and Hispanic men are more likely to receive longer prison sentences than their white counterparts," the McClatchy papers report, "since the Supreme Court loosened federal sentencing rules."

According to the study, as of 1999 black men involved in federal cases were receiving sentences that averaged 14% longer than those handed out to white defendants. Strict guidelines eliminated this disparity by 2002, but the trend has reversed again since a judicial decision in 2005 gave judges much more discretion.

According to the commission, sentences for black men currently average either 10% or 23% longer than those for white men, depending how the date is analyzed. Hispanic men also receive sentences that are longer by 7%.

The commission cautioned that the disparities did not necessarily imply racism on the judges' part. They might, for example, reflect the quality of legal representation or the fact that past disparities mean black and Hispanic men are likely to have more extensive criminal records.