Income inequality is bad enough, then add the race factor

Income inequality is bad enough, then add the race factor
© Getty

Wealth is concentrating upwards in this country — we've known that for years. But new numbers really drive home just how severely.

According to our new report, Billionaire Bonanza 2017, there's been a rapid updraft of wealth into the top echelon of multi-billionaires. The wealthiest 400 Americans now have more wealth together than the bottom 64 percent of the population, over 200 million of us.

That's bad enough. But through the lens of race, these statistics reveal another dimension of the story. Only seven of the 400 wealthiest Americans are black or Latino — the rest are almost entirely white.

It takes barely half of that list to blot out the total wealth of blacks and Latinos alike. The wealthiest 269 billionaires equal the combined wealth of the entire African-American population of 47 million people. For Latinos, it takes just 252 billionaires.

These eye-popping comparisons are possible, in part, because of the swollen ranks of “underwater nation,” those households with zero or negative wealth.

Almost one in five U.S. households own zero or even negative wealth. Those numbers rise to 27 percent of Latino households and 30 percent of black households — more than double the proportion of white families.

Growing racial wealth inequality is pulling down the wealth of middle-class black and Latino households. This has an adverse impact on the overall economy, leaving more and more Americans financially unstable with declining median wealth.

The causes of this racial wealth divide have little to do with individual behavior. People going to college and getting good-paying jobs are certainly both beneficial, but don't contribute greatly to closing the wealth gap. As Darrick Hamilton and his colleagues point out in their 2015 study “Umbrellas Don’t Make it Rain,” black families whose head graduated from college have a third less wealth than white families whose head was a high school dropout.

The racial wealth divide is the result of a range of historical and systemic factors, as well as current government policies, not individual actions.

These include past discriminatory housing policies that continue to fuel an enormous racial divide in homeownership rates. About 72 percent of white families own their own homes. By contrast, only 42 percent and 45 percent of African-Americans and Latinos, respectively, owned their own homes.

One cause is an “upside down” tax system that helps the wealthiest households get wealthier while providing the lowest income families with almost nothing. For example, the federal government currently devotes $77 billion annually to the tax break for homeowners called the mortgage interest deduction.

White households make up two-thirds of the population, but receive over three-quarters of the benefits from the mortgage interest deduction. Black and Latino households each represented about 13 percent of households but get just 6 and 7 percent of these benefits. This discrepancy translates to billions of dollars and contributes to a widening of the racial wealth divide year after year.

The current tax cut legislation under consideration in Congress includes efforts to reform the mortgage interest deduction, which would be a welcome thing. Unfortunately, those modest savings are being used to finance massive tax cuts on the ultra-wealthy, which will only increase inequality.

There's no plan to expand homeownership opportunity. There is, by contrast, a provision that gives tax cuts to private jet owners, an indicator of the priorities of those writing the tax bill.

A serious effort to reduce the racial wealth divide would include major new investments for increasing economic opportunity for those who have been historically left out of economic advancement. Congress should focus on this rather than their current path of ensuring the rich get richer at the expense of everyone else.

Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie are co-authors of the new report, Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us. They co-edit the web site at the Institute for Policy Studies.