Years of discriminatory policies that favored white men at the expense of the common good have created stunning disparities that persist to this day.
Though many Americans favor an approach to equality that stands for “giving everyone an equal chance,” the realities of inheritance, neighborhood segregation and outright discrimination make such meritocratic ideals suspect. (This meritocracy myth is akin to insisting, as 19th century political economist Henry George once noted, “that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.”) A new study by Mariko Chang shows just how deep those wealth gaps remain today.
Chang’s report, published by the Asset Funders Network and making use of Consumer Finance Survey data, suggests stark gaps. First the report shows gaps between married couples, single men and single women.
It’s worth noting the large disparities not just between men and women, but also between the median and mean. That suggests a deep inequality: the mean is being pulled higher by numerous rich people at the top. (Consider an instance in which Bill Gates walks into a bar full of working-class women and men. The mean wealth increases dramatically, while the median increases modestly.) As Matt Bruenig has noted, “The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation's wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it.”
Adding a racial lens to the data (viewed in the chart above) also produces stark divergences: the median black woman has $200 in wealth, the median white man: $28,900. Age also matters: The data suggest millennial (18-34) women, of all races, have $0 in wealth. That leaves very little buffer from an unexpected job loss or medical emergency (made even more likely by the conservative war against access to healthcare, for instance their refusal to expand Medicaid, which primarily harms people of color).
Indeed, data show “the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation.”
Although women are now more likely to complete college than men, this alone won’t close the wealth gap. The median single woman with a college degree has wealth of $18,710. The median single man: $31,400. Even pay equality won’t close the gaps. The highest-earning women, those earning more than $65,001, have median wealth of $166,000, while men in the same bracket have median wealth of $223,700.
As I’ve noted recently in Salon, policymakers are biased toward the policies of rich white men. Indeed, for a long time, all of the policymakers were rich white men. The gaps Chang exposes are not simply the product of neutral or natural forces; extensive research shows that government policy was there all along, benefiting some at the expense of the few.
What are the solutions? First, America needs a strong public sector. That means more money for infrastructure, childcare, higher education and universal pre-K. America needs to invest in its cities, and its communities, particularly low-income, black and Latino communities that have faced decades of disinvestment and neglect. Second, America needs full employment. That means active fiscal policy and guaranteed jobs for all Americans who want to work. Third, America needs a financial sector that works for everyone. That means a modest financial transaction tax to limit excessive trading and a baby bond to give every American a shot at buying stock, starting a business or buying a house in a better neighborhood. To get there, America needs a true, participatory and equal democracy. That means ensuring policymakers pay attention to everyone, not just the wealthy donor class. Limits on, or at least disclosure of, lobbying and campaign contributions from the rich, combined with public financing to amplify the voices of women, people of color and workers would bring us closer to a vibrant democracy. Eliminating discriminatory barriers to voting will breathe life into our democracy.
Deep disparities in wealth belie the American myth that simply because we have a black president and Oprah is massively wealthy our problems are over. Chang’s report shows that single black and Hispanic women own less than a penny for every dollar owned by single white men. Once again: single black and Hispanic women own less than a penny for every dollar owned by single white men. That didn’t just happen.