Growing wealth gap harms families and the economy

Over the last 25 years, the wealth gap between white and African-American families in the U. S. has nearly tripled, growing from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009, according to a recent report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

Wealth is more than just income; it’s all the resources people have minus what they owe. Without the ability to build assets, families are unable to access the opportunities for higher incomes and economic security that education offers, and they don’t have the economic security to weather job loss or a major illness without significant hardship. A strong middle class is a key component of a strong economy, but the growing wealth gap shows that whole communities are being left behind.

The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap finds that almost half of the growing wealth gap between whites and African-Americans can be explained by two factors: years of homeownership and household income. Other important contributors to whites having greater wealth include fewer and shorter periods of unemployment, higher levels of education and access to family financial support. These advantages are often the result of ”opportunities and barriers in workplaces, schools, and communities that reinforce deeply entrenched racial dynamics in how wealth is accumulated.”

Homeownership is the largest source of wealth for most families, and the largest explaining factor of the racial wealth gap. Institutional factors such as differences in credit access, discriminatory lending practices and residential segregation drive down the homeownership rate for black families. White families have the advantage of drawing on their own family wealth to purchase homes earlier, and this continues a pattern of increased stability for white families.

Income is, of course, an important source of wealth for everyone. However, the brief found that increases in income have very different effects on wealth for these two groups. A increase of $1 in income yields over $5.19 of white wealth growth, while this same amount increases black wealth growth by $0.69. “This dramatic difference in wealth accumulation from similar income gains has its roots in long-standing patterns of discrimination in hiring, promoting, and access to benefits that have made it much harder for African-Americans to save and build assets,” according to the brief. This means that while white families are able to save their earnings, black families are using their earnings to fulfill basic needs and have little left over to save.

The brief proposes some policy changes that could significantly narrow the wealth gap. These include:

  • Strengthening mortgage and fair housing policies so that homeownership offers the same wealth opportunities to white and black families;
  • Boosting the incomes of African-Americans by increasing the minimum wage;
  • Changing federal tax policy to end preferential treatment of investments over wage income.

These policy changes are key steps to strengthening the economy by ensuring all families have the opportunity to buy a home, send their kids to college and build economic security.

-Caitlin Biegler

About Caitlin Biegler

Caitlin Biegler is the Minnesota Budget Project’s policy analyst. She researches and writes about state tax and budget issues. Caitlin holds a Master of Public Policy degree from George Washington University in Washington, DC; and a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health from Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. She interned at the DC Fiscal Policy Institute in Washington, DC, Third Way in Washington, DC, Lutheran Social Services, and the Alabama State Office of Primary Care and Rural Health.
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One Response to Growing wealth gap harms families and the economy

  1. Thank you for highlighting this troubling issue and addressing the role of homeownership in wealth. Homeownership is indeed a key factor in the racial wealth gap, and Minnesota nabbed unwanted attention this year for having the worst homeownership gap in the country between whites and minorities. (This shouldn’t be too surprising since Minnesota also has a troubling pattern of racial disparities in education, employment, health outcomes, criminal justice, and child welfare.)

    Whether it’s about owning a home or renting, African Americans and minorities in Minnesota are more likely to face barriers in finding housing. Homelessness is another social condition that disproportionately impacts African Americans as compared to White Minnesotans. Over a third (37%) of adults experiencing homelessness in Minnesota are African American, although African Americans represent only 5% of the adult population in our state. Access to affordable housing can improve housing stability for all families.

    While Minnesota made some investments in affordable housing production and rehabilitation in the last couple years, real progress will also require attention from Congress and HUD. The National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF) was established under the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The NHTF will help communities build and rehabilitate rental homes that are affordable for extremely and very low income households. However, this national trust fund has never received funding from Congress!

    The National Low Income Housing Coalition has been working on a federal campaign to fund the NHTF called the United for Homes campaign. One of the proposals supported by the campaign, a bill by Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), would modify the mortgage interest deduction and contribute savings to a national fund promoting affordable housing—while also allowing more people to take advantage of the credit and limiting eligibility for households at top incomes. I encourage you to learn more about United for Homes at nlihc.org/unitedforhomes/proposal.