The 50th anniversary of “the March on Washington”—so famous and, in many ways, so successful that “the” is sufficient to define it—brought forth a gusto of stories about what had been achieved since then, including some very interesting blog posts by my colleagues. Several turned to data on the distribution of wealth, including some studies in which I participated, noting the lack of gains—especially in the past few decades—in the wealth and income of blacks and Hispanics relative to whites.
Those aggregate, raw figures on wealth and income act as a form of performance test on one aspect of government policy. They state rather emphatically that, whatever its merits, such policy was not sufficient to move the needle on wealth mobility across and among racial and other classes. Some simply draw the conclusion that we must redouble our efforts on programs that they have favored for a long time. Spend more on Medicare or Medicaid or cut tax rates or whatever. But what if that focus is wrong? What if the dominant liberal and conservative agendas over the past 50 years, at least when it came to social policy and taxes, never really had much to with mobility? What if the data compel us to adopt more dynamic, yet realistic, policies that put mobility and opportunity more at the forefront of policy in the 21st century?
Over these past few decades, liberal agendas have focused largely on the positive effects of ensuring that people had adequate income, food, health care, and so on—that is, consumption. Conservative agendas have focused largely on the negative effects of high income tax rates, particularly at the top of the income distribution. Often raising legitimate concerns about poverty or incentives, respectively, in many ways, each side has won its battle. Redistributive and other social welfare policies now dominate the $55,000 in federal, state and local spending, including tax subsidies, now spent on average per household, while tax rates at the top tend to be about half what they were from World War II to the early 1960s.
Relative to 50 years ago, fewer people are without food or food assistance, people can now retire on Social Security for many more years, health care has become far more life-sustaining, more people go to college, and, while economic growth hasn’t been great lately, we’re still about three times richer than we were. So the record isn’t all that bad, despite current travails. But, once again, those successes largely did not carry over to mobility among and across classes.
Here are just a few examples of how policies have given limited attention to mobility:
- Current welfare policy helps feed and house people, but it often discourages work by imposing very high costs on moderate-income households with children, as they can lose hundreds of dollars of benefits for each $1,000 they earn.
- Even while single parenthood remains a major source of poverty for many, that same welfare policy now penalizes—on the order of hundreds of billions of dollars—low-income couples with children who decide to get or remain married.
- Although investing in quality early childhood education appears to have a high payoff, the means testing of Head Start and other programs re-segregates our schools, with poorer kids often clustered together in classrooms separate from middle-class kids.
- Housing rental subsidies help people live in decent housing, but they also discourage home-buying and paying off a mortgage along the way, keeping lower-income families away from that classic and, for large segments of the population, most important mechanism for saving.
- Our retirement policies help most Americans live their later years in some comfort. But by encouraging early retirement, Social Security and other programs lead to an increased wealth gap among the elderly as richer classes retire later—hence, work and save longer—than poorer classes.
- Low tax rates may encourage entrepreneurship, but when they don’t raise enough revenue to pay our bills, they add to interest costs on the debt, gradually eroding support for investments in people, education, and similar efforts.
It’s not that liberals and conservatives advocating these older agendas don’t care about mobility. They’ll tell you that people with more sustenance will be able to work and study harder and entrepreneurs facing lower tax rates will create more jobs. But they try to claim too much for agendas that, though successful on some fronts, did not improve mobility in recent decades. The proof is in the pudding.
Raising these issues threatens those who fear that acknowledging failure on any front merely empowers those who advocate for the opposing agenda. And in today’s chaos that passes for policymaking, that is probably true. I don’t even know in what galaxy to place debates over previously nonpartisan issues like extending the debt ceiling so Congress can pay off its bills.
For me, it isn’t about abandoning the past. It’s simply about moving on.
Worried about the stagnation of income among middle-income households? Or about the growth in health care costs? The two are not unrelated. In fact, middle-income families have witnessed far more growth than the change in their cash incomes suggest if we count the better health insurance most receive from employers or government. But is that all good news? Should ever-increasing shares of the income that Americans receive from government in retirement and other transfer payments go directly to hospitals and doctors as opposed to other needs of beneficiaries? Should workers receive ever-smaller shares of compensation in the form of cash?
The stagnation of cash incomes in the middle of the income distribution now goes back over three decades. Consider the period from 1980 to 2011. Cash income per member of a median income household, which includes items like wages and interest and cash payments from government like Social Security, only grew by about $4,300 or 27 percent over that period, when adjusted for inflation. From 2000 to 2010, it was even negative. Yet according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, per capita personal income—our most comprehensive measure of individual income—grew 72 percent from 1980 to 2011.
How do we reconcile these statistics? By disentangling the many pieces that go into each measure.
Growing income inequality certainly plays a big part in this story: much of the growth in either cash or total personal income was garnered by those with very high incomes. So the growth in average income, no matter how measured, is substantially higher than the growth for a typical or median person who shared much less than proportionately in those gains. But personal income also includes many items that simply don’t show up in the cash income measures. Among them is the provision of noncash government benefits, such as various forms of food assistance.
Health care plays no small role. In fact, real national health care expenditures per person grew by 223 percent or $6,150 from 1980 to 2011, much more than the growth in median cash income. If we assume that the median-income household member got about the average amount of health care and insurance, then we can see how little their increased cash income tells them or us about their higher standard of living.
Getting a bit more technical, there’s a danger of over-counting and under-counting health care costs here. Some of the median or typical person’s additional cash income went to extra health care expenses, so the additional amount he/she had left for all other purposes was even less than $4,300. However, individuals pay only a small share of their health care expenses; the vast majority is covered by government, employer, or other third-party payments. So, roughly speaking, typical or median individuals still got well more than half of their income growth in the form of health benefits.
The implications stretch well beyond middle-class stagnation. Employers face rising pressures to drop insurance so they can provide higher cash wages. For instance, providing a decent health insurance package to a family can be equivalent roughly to a doubling of employer costs for a worker paid minimum wage. The government, in turn, faces a different squeeze: as it allocates ever-larger shares of its social welfare budget for health care, it grants smaller shares to education, wage subsidies, child tax credits, and most other efforts. Additionally, the more expensive the health care the government provides to those who don’t work, the greater the incentives for them to retire earlier or remain unemployed.
In the end, the health care juggernaut leaves us with good news (that our incomes indeed are growing moderately faster than most headlines would have us believe) as well as bad news (that health care remains unmerciful in what it increasingly takes out of our budget).
COAUTHORED WITH DOUG WISSOKER
A recent paper by Bayer, Ferreira, and Ross on mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures finds that people of color had greater problems once Recession hit than did many others in roughly equal circumstances, such as income and location, but with different racial backgrounds. We believe this is a useful, though not surprising, finding in ongoing studies of the impact of the Recession on different types of households. Yet we worry about how its results get extrapolated into policy recommendations.
The paper concludes that their research “raises concerns about homeownership as a vehicle for reducing racial wealth disparities”. We believe that one needs to be very careful in extrapolating lessons from the market of the mid-2000s to any market and to policies that would apply over time. Paying off mortgages is the primary means by which the majority of households, particularly low and moderate-income households, save over time. Discouraging such saving could easily add to already unequal distribution of wealth in society.
First, a quick summary of the findings. Combining several sources of data to look at racial differences in delinquent payments and foreclosures for mortgages for purchases and refinances originated between 2004 and 2008, the authors find that black and Hispanic borrowers had substantially higher delinquency and foreclosure rates than whites and Asians, even controlling for differences in circumstances such as the borrower’s credit score, the size of the interest rate spread of the loan, and the identity of the lender. In addition, the authors conclude that the racial gap in delinquent payments and foreclosures peaked for loans originating in 2006. From this, they conclude that people of color entering the market at the peak of the housing boom were particularly vulnerable to adverse economic conditions.
The authors attribute the racial difference found for blacks and Hispanics, even after trying to control for income or other differences, to items they couldn’t measure, including lower wealth and an accompanying lack of a financial cushion. This seems crucial to us and is also consistent with studies that income an incomplete predictor of upward or downward mobility. Work from the Urban Institute (here) shows that wealth differentials by race are much greater than income differentials. These differentials can play out in multiple ways across generations. For instance, wealthier families provide more inheritances and intergenerational transfers that support homebuying and downpayment levels that reduce foreclosure risk.
However, the authors’ concern about homeownership as a vehicle for reducing racial wealth disparities does not follow logically. Evidence here is at best circumstantial. Among other sources of disparate outcomes, consumer groups would point out that these types of findings more than anything highlight the disparate impact of abusive lending at the height of the housing boom.
Portfolio theory requires looking across different types of assets and debts, along with their associated expected returns and risks. Homeownership has risks, but so does renting. In fact, rental rates at times rise faster than the costs of homeownership, and in many parts of the country it has become cheaper to own than rent for those likely to be in a home long enough that transactions costs do not eat away at the ownership returns. Similarly, a household often must choose among debt instruments. Mortgages tend to have lower interest charges than most other forms of debt.
Most vehicles for getting a decent return on investment involve some risk. Saving accounts now paying negative, after-inflation, returns only prove the point in spades. If saving were proportionate to income, for instance, but lower-income individuals invest only in low or negative return assets, then wealth inequality necessarily would grow to be much greater than implied by levels of saving, potentially compounding adverse outcomes over time. Conversely, without discounting lessons from the Great Recession, low-cost, well-structured mortgages continue to be supported by the government (whether through FHA or the GSEs) partly for the very purpose of diversifying risk and effectively spreading wealth ownership.
This study is based on patterns of delinquency and foreclosure rates observed during a limited time period with unusually high foreclosure rates. But, wealth accumulation occurs over a very long time. Thus, even on this paper’s own terms, it’s not clear that reduced rates of homeownership would make low-income households or people of color better off over extended periods. We have found that most homeowners buying a decade or so before the Great Recession came through the longer period in good shape. Our own work also tends to show that black homeownership rates, even after controlling for income, are disproportionately low in both good and bad markets, raising serious questions about whether they are missing out on opportunities available to others.
Regardless of the effect on the difference in wealth disparity by race, homeownership is an effective way for many, though certainly not all, low- and moderate-income households to save. Equity in a home is the primary asset owned by low- and middle-income households, including blacks and Hispanics, by the time of retirement. Paying off a mortgage is the primary mechanism by which these households save, with all the virtues of a more automatic and regular saving vehicle. Reductions in the already low homeownership of people of color would almost certainly exacerbate over time the unequal distribution of wealth.
While the income inequality among different racial and ethnic groups is significant, it is nothing compared to wealth inequality. In 2010, whites had six times more average wealth than blacks and Hispanics ($632,000 versus $103,000). The income gap, by comparison, was twofold ($89,000 versus $46,000).
In a recent study, several colleagues and I examine in more depth how these ratios are affected by wealth accumulation over a person’s lifetime. Early in wealth-building years (when adults are in their 30s), white families have 3.5 to 4 times the wealth of families of color. As adults age these initial racial differences grow both absolutely and relatively. Whites in the cohort we examined started with about three and a half times more wealth than blacks in their 30s but had seven times more wealth in their 60s. Compared with Hispanics, whites had four times more wealth in their 30s but nearly five times more wealth three decades later.
Or consider how ratios would vary if each family saved the same share of its income and earned the same rate of return on those savings. Ignoring inheritances, the wealth gap should resemble the income gap, not be three times as large.
While the Great Recession didn’t cause the wealth disparities between whites and minorities, it did exacerbate them. The 2007–09 economic slowdown brought about sharp declines in the wealth of white, black, and Hispanic families alike, but Hispanics experienced the largest decline. Lower net equity in homes accounts for much of Hispanics’ wealth loss, while retirement accounts are where blacks were hit hardest.
Something is definitely going on. Whatever other conclusions one may draw, I think our tax and social policies are doing a pretty poor job of helping individuals attain the types of protections that private wealth-holding offers. In fact, wealth disparities among races have expanded over the past 27 years, which should have liberals and conservatives alike questioning the unintended consequences of their policy victories, or at least their policy focus, over that period.
For more analysis of the wealth gap between whites and minorities, read the brief Less Than Equal: Racial Disparities in Wealth Accumulation or watch The Racial Wealth Gap in America. This work has been cited in the New York Times.
My colleagues and I recently published research showing that younger age groups are falling behind their parents in wealth accumulation and explaining the story behind our numbers. Some have raised questions about how we use our data, and I want to take some time to further explain our research.
Our study shows that the average wealth, or net worth, of these younger age groups has fallen fairly dramatically relative to older age groups. In response, some have said that median wealth is more important than average wealth. In fact, both are important. Average wealth tells us how a group is prospering as a whole relative to other groups; median wealth tells us how some “typical” person might be doing. One complication with focusing on median wealth is that it doesn’t show where all the remaining wealth goes. In a similar vein, if you were studying small business ownership by age or race, the median value might be zero for all groups. The average values would be greater than zero and thus would allow comparisons by groups.
Consider the median household age 56–64 in 2010. True, it is only slightly richer than the median household of a similar age in 1983 ($179,400 versus $143,150). Still, the median household age 29–37 in 1983 had $46,234 in wealth, but the median household in that age group in 2010 had only $15,900, less than half compared to their parents.
Median and average net worth by age is reported here. Come to your own conclusion.
Another footnote: Our study did not look at the decline in defined benefit wealth. However, the availability of such wealth has declined more for younger than older groups. Moreover, the valuation of defined benefits and annuities goes up for those who have them when interest rates go down. Older individuals with more defined benefit wealth technically saw the value of wealth go up after the Great Recession.
You can slice and dice these data in many ways, but the empirical data speak for themselves: younger age groups have fallen behind in relative terms. All sorts of factors are involved: the Great Recession and its impact on housing, student debt, wages, and so forth. Each is worthy of our attention.