A race/class analysis of the wealth distribution

By Luc Schuster and Peter Ciurczak

January 31, 2024

This report was produced by Boston Indicators, and is part of our Racial Wealth Equity Resource Center special initiative.

“There are, in fact, more poor white Americans than there are Negro. Their need for a war on poverty is no less desperate than the Negro’s. In the South they have been deluded by race prejudice and largely remain aloof from common action.”

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his 1967 book "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?"

Greater Boston (and the nation) has a large and persistent racial wealth gap. This is now well known. Wealth gaps persist as the legacy and ongoing product of society’s greatest injustices, and Boston Indicators has created the Racial Wealth Equity Resource Center as one research-based contribution to advancing solutions.

Focusing just on race, however, risks flattening our understanding of wealth divides, implying that most people of color are low-wealth and that most white people are high-wealth. In relative terms, Black and Latino Americans really are far more likely to be low-wealth. But it’s simultaneously true that most low-wealth families are white.

These two facts can seem in tension, but taking a step back, it does make sense. Many white (and Asian and Native American) families genuinely struggle with economic insecurity. And while the United States has grown more diverse in recent years, white people remain by far the largest racial group.

Writing this risks suggesting a desire to redirect attention away from racial injustice. But the intent here is to generate a more nuanced understanding of how race and class intersect when analyzing the wealth distribution. Key findings from this brief, which analyzes new data from the 2022 Survey of Consumer Finances, include:

  • The richest American families are overwhelmingly white (and, of their respective populations, they are overwhelmingly white and Asian).
  • The poorest families are quite multiracial, with white families being the single largest low-wealth racial group.
  • Losing sight of the many Americans of all races who are economically insecure has perpetuated racialized perceptions of who is poor in America and depressed popular support for social welfare programs. Redistributive policy ideas like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding subsidized housing, or creating universal childcare are made harder when they’re viewed as “giveaways” to a subset of the population.

To be clear, the causes leading to low wealth are uniquely pernicious for many families of color, driven by all forms of overt and covert racial discrimination. This is especially true for multigenerational Black families with ties to enslavement and the Jim Crow period of direct state-sponsored racial discrimination. Noting that many white families are also poor does not in any way mean that we shouldn’t also be pursuing race-specific efforts to repair these historic harms.

The topline distribution of wealth by race

First, let’s look at the number of households by race across a wide range of wealth buckets.

As the largest single group, white households crowd the visual. But a couple of things still jump out: 1) white families are the largest group at every point of the wealth distribution, not only the top; and 2) white families dominate by an increasing amount the higher up you go.

To get a better sense of how skewed things are at the top, let’s zoom in on households with net worth of over half a million dollars.

From this graph it becomes clear how overwhelmingly white the richest American families are. In a country of roughly 37 million higher-wealth households, only one million are headed by Latinos, two million by Black Americans, and three million by Asian Americans.

This skew increases as one moves up the distribution; white families make up 80 percent of families with between $500,000 and $1 million in wealth, and this share increases to 92 percent for families with $5 million or more. Focusing just on the white to Black ratio within these categories, we find that there are 11 times as many white families as Black families in the $500,000 to $1 million bucket, and this increases to 161 times as many for the $5 million+ bucket.

This lopsidedness at the top won’t surprise many, but focusing on gaps at the median can move people past this basic fact a bit too quickly; wealth is highly concentrated among the white elite.

In Decomposing the Black-White Wealth Gap in the United States, 1989-2013, for instance, Kevin Carney found that if one simply set aside the highest-wealth 25 percent of white households, average white and Black wealth became nearly identical. According to Carney, this exercise shows that “(i)f we exclude White individuals at the top, average Black and White wealth look quite similar, both in levels and in growth rates…This suggests that the differential growth rates of Black and White wealth is driven by very wealthy White people at the top.”

Motivated by these observations, one way to close the wealth gap could be to diversify the super-rich. But given the magnitude of this discrepancy, doing so would require creating trillions of dollars in wealth and distributing that only to new non-white multimillionaires. A more practical approach would be to create a more egalitarian spread across the board. This would entail redistributing from the current white elite to the multiracial lower wealth majority and ensuring that any future wealth generation is more evenly distributed in the first place.

Next, let’s zoom in on the bottom of the distribution. This is where the story gets a bit more surprising.

White families still make up the largest racial group in each of these lower-wealth categories, including the negative wealth bucket on the far left. Not only are white families the largest group in each bucket, they also make up a strong majority across the board, at 58 percent of all American families with net wealth below $50,000.

Black and Latino families are consistently the second and third largest groups, with significantly more Black families even more predominantly in the negative wealth category.

It’s absolutely true that a subset of white people has been privileged in the American political system since our nation’s founding. It’s just also true that large portions of white families have always been part of America’s underclass. We often lose sight of these facts when organizing our work around racial gaps, as that framing fixes our attention on the differences between groups rather than on absolute levels.

A brief look at some local data on economic insecurity

The SCF data on wealth are not reliable at the local level, so that’s why the above graphs present national estimates. But this pattern is almost certainly very similar in Greater Boston. One way to test this is by looking at other measures of economic insecurity, such as poverty by race. Google “poverty in Boston,” though, and virtually all the results present the data as shares, emphasizing how large the racial gaps are. A representative example shows a common way of presenting the data:

Poverty shares excluding white

These percentages aren’t inaccurate. But this data alone can lead to the impression that few white people live in poverty, when, in fact, the total number of white people in poverty in Boston is basically equal to the two other highest groups (graph below)—roughly 31,000 for white residents, 29,000 for Black residents, and 32,000 for Latinos. Again, the fact that Black and Latino residents are more likely to live in poverty is a real injustice. It’s just that efforts to support to those most in need cannot ignore the fact that many of those people in need are also white (and Asian, to a lesser degree).

Zooming out to the full region, the picture is even more surprising, with the number of white residents living in poverty more than two times as high as for Latinos and more than three-times as high as for Black residents. Overall, white people make up 49 percent of people living in poverty in Greater Boston and 30 percent of those in the city of Boston.

How the picture changes when looking at shares instead of counts

Again, looking at shares isn’t incorrect. It’s just far more common. So, let’s conclude by graphing the wealth distribution in this more common way. This has the obvious virtue of adjusting for very different population sizes, showing the relative likelihood of someone of a given race falling into one of these net wealth buckets. And this approach emphasizes a finding that is more intuitive given our country’s history of discrimination: that Black and Latino families are far more likely to be low wealth in the United States.

Looking at shares also shifts the picture for Asian wealth. Prior rounds of the Survey of Consumer Finances did not survey enough Asian households to report reliable estimates, but this changed for 2022. Even still, at a much smaller share of the U.S. population, their levels can be hard to discern in the earlier graphs using absolute totals. But looking at shares, as we do above, shows that Asian American households are actually the highest-wealth racial group in the United States. Strikingly, for instance, more than half of Asian American household in the United States have net wealth above $500,000. People often think of the racial wealth gap as white versus people of color, but this data complicates that binary construct.

As with all groups, however, crude racial categorizations mask large intra-Asian disparities, so this finding should not be interpreted to suggest that no Asian families struggle with economic insecurity. We know from previous research we did in partnership with the Asian Community Fund, for instance, that despite being home to many high-income/high-wealth Asian American families, Greater Boston is also home to many lower-income/lower-wealth Asian American families. In fact, it’s likely that Asian Americans have the largest intragroup inequality of any racial group in the region.

Why does this matter?

Racial disparities in the United States are real, persistent, and large. But a focus on disparities across groups risks perpetuating an overly racialized view of who struggles in America.

Heather McGhee’s 2021 book The Sum of Us provides a useful analysis of these dynamics, detailing how racialized perceptions of who is “deserving” in America lead to lower support for social welfare programs. McGhee writes:

“(I)f the government tried to secure (government benefits like those in Northern Europe) for families in the United States, in the political culture of the last two generations, it would signal a threat to the majority of white voters. Government help is for people of color, the story goes. When you cut government services, as Reagan strategist Lee Atwater said, ‘blacks get hurt worse than whites.’ What’s lost in that formulation is just how much white people get hurt, too.”

These dynamics fuel counterproductive views on the right and on the left.

It’s simplest to see how this plays out on the right. Essentializing differences by race encourages grasping for racist explanations of why Black people are more likely to be poor. As Dr. King put this in the quote above from Where Do We Go from Here, these dynamics can leave white conservatives “deluded by race prejudice” and “aloof from common action” to advance solutions that would alleviate economic security for everyone. Dr. King wrote these words in 1967 and this problem persists today as a driver in the rise of right-wing populism.

But these dynamics can also lead those of us in more progressive spaces astray. If most Americans associate poverty and economic insecurity only with people of color, even well-meaning liberals are more likely to view efforts to address inequality as a limited form of charity, rather than a necessary policy goal that benefits a whole nation.

The data above show that economic insecurity really does affect people of all races. Our efforts to address it will be more effective if we adopt strategies that target poverty directly, rather than relying too much on the proxy of race. This is important both on the merits (because policy reforms should reach everyone across the multiracial working class who needs them) and on the politics (because winning transformative change requires broad popular support).

Redistributive policy ideas like increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, expanding subsidized housing, or creating universal childcare are made harder when they’re viewed as “giveaways” to a subset of the population. Each of these programs are race neutral in design, but because Black, Latino, and Native American populations are disproportionately lower-income and lower-wealth, they stand to benefit the most from these programs. By bringing along people of all racial groups, we maximize the chances of solidarity-based organizing for bigger forms of transformative change.

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