Numbers don’t lie, but they are ill-equipped to adequately articulate the nuance of our collective wealth. The African-American money story is rooted in a fight for fairness, access to resources and a restoration of our humanity. And at the heart of this story is a desire for this nation to finally make good on the material returns it promised African-Americans in exchange for centuries of sacrifice, service and servitude.
According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the median wealth of Black families is just 2 percent of the median wealth of White families—that’s $3,600 for Black families compared with $147,000 for White families. In other words, White families possess 41 times more wealth than Black families.
Unlike income, which is earned in the labor market, wealth is built primarily by the transfer of assets across generations, thus making it possible to possess a high income and little wealth or low income and significant inherited wealth or any other combination along the wealth–income spectrum. The reality is that Black households with median wealth near or below zero pass down generational poverty, while White households with substantial resources bequeath generational wealth.
Conversations around reversing the racial wealth gap often begin and end with a narrative that is equally as pernicious as the wealth inequalities it tries to explain away: The wealthiest in our country earned their riches fair and square, and by the sweat of their brow; on the other hand, our poorest and most vulnerable are deadbeats and deserve their wretched lot due to weak morals and bad decision-making. But this is a lie.
A quick look at our country’s economic history will reveal that White wealth is more a function of U.S. government-backed supports aimed at ensuring White success rather than the dishonest narrative of individual grit, smarts, exceptionalism and hard work. After World War II, for example, veterans were offered federal aid through the GI Bill to purchase homes, farms and businesses; get jobs; and pursue an education.
Though this was a race-neutral policy on paper, it’s been documented that Black veterans received far less assistance and access to these benefits than their White counterparts. In fact, upon their return home, thousands of Black veterans were denied admission to colleges, turned down for loans for housing and business, and excluded from job-training programs throughout the Jim Crow South as well as the North. Seventy-five years later the GI Bill has served to establish, strengthen and expand the White American middle class while simultaneously destabilizing the Black American one.
If public policy has been leveraged to create wealth for select Americans in the past, it can be leveraged again— this time to produce riches for all Americans.”
If public policy has been leveraged to create wealth for select Americans in the past, it can be leveraged again—this time to produce riches for all Americans. One 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Cory Booker, has proposed the passing of a baby bond bill with this end in mind. Originally the brainchild of economists Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, Jr., baby bonds would be federally managed accounts set up at birth for children and endowed by the federal government with assets that will grow over time.
There would be a sliding scale to determine how much each baby would receive based on the parents’ wealth. Children of rich parents would receive $500 in support, while the poorest would get $50,000. The average middle-class child would receive $20,000. As with the GI Bill, when the child reaches adulthood these funds would be used for education, to purchase a home or to start a business.
While baby bonds won’t replace lost generational wealth, it’s a bold and thoughtful attempt to level the playing field for young adults. Another notable approach to possibly eliminating the racial wealth gap includes Senator Elizabeth Warren and others’ proposal to introduce the Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019. The bill would eliminate the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code that prevents federal and private student loans from being dischargeable.
If passed, this act would free our young, gifted and Black students to begin their lives without being hobbled by decades of debt repayment. Naming the institutionalized root cause of the racial wealth discrepancy doesn’t negate the role personal choices around money play in contributing to its eradication. It just manages our collective expectations about how effective these measures truly are in generating wealth for the average Black family.
Individual and community-based decisions to create investment clubs, receive financial coaching and pursue side hustles build positive money habits and financial confidence, and remind us of the power of personal agency. Yet as helpful as these practices are, they are limited and insufficient without structural wealth reform—the ultimate equalizer.
Without such reform, many Black people will be fooled into thinking that the racial wealth gap is a mess of our making and, by extension, our sole responsibility to clean up. It’s way past time to retire this particular lie so that we can create generational wealth of our own.