Jul 10, 2020 - Economy & Business

The myth of closing the racial wealth gap through personal responsibility

Data: Survey of Consumer Finances, reproduced from Hamilton Project; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Survey of Consumer Finances, reproduced from Hamilton Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

The myth that Black Americans can close the racial wealth gap through "personal responsibility" comes in part from a misunderstanding of what wealth is.

The big picture: As noted by a report last year from the Cleveland Fed, the income gap between Black and white Americans is the result of "persistent systemic differences in economic opportunity," rather than a lack of responsibility.

  • But even if Black people could close the income gap through personal responsibility, i.e. working harder, it would not close the wealth gap.

By the numbers: Research from the Brookings Institution, led by Kriston McIntosh, shows "[T]he racial wealth gap remains even for families with the same income."

  • "For those in the top 10 percent by income (only 3.6 percent Black), the racial wealth gap is still quite large."

What happened: Efforts by Black Americans to build wealth have been impeded in a host of ways, McIntosh notes, "beginning with 246 years of chattel slavery and followed by Congressional mismanagement of the Freedman’s Savings Bank (which left 61,144 depositors with losses of nearly $3 million in 1874)."

  • Then there was the violent massacre decimating Tulsa’s Greenwood District in 1921 (a population of 10,000 that thrived as the epicenter of African American business and culture, commonly referred to as "Black Wall Street").
  • "And discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century including the Jim Crow Era’s 'Black Codes' strictly limiting opportunity in many southern states, the GI bill, the New Deal’s Fair Labor Standards Act’s exemption of domestic agricultural and service occupations, and redlining."

What it means: "Earnings and other types of income are not key determinants of wealth," notes a 2018 paper from the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

  • "Deliberate acts of personal savings out of earnings and other types of income do not actually play the fabled role assigned to them in the process of wealth accumulation."
  • "The linchpin for wealth accumulation is the transfer of resources across generations, maintaining higher wealth positions among parents and grandparents for their children and grandchildren."

The bottom line: "[T]he fact that intergenerational transfer of wealth is lightly taxed means that historical gaps persist over generations," McIntosh writes. "Furthermore, inadequate investments in the public goods that facilitate economic mobility make it harder to erase past gaps."

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