Why the inequality debate must consider race

The recent national debate lamenting growing economic inequality in the U.S. has been largely silent about one important fact:  the color of wealth in the United States is white, not green. 

As legislators in the U.S. Congress who lead caucuses focused on advancing the economic and social progress of African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans and Latinos, we are keenly aware that introducing the issue of race and ethnicity into any public policy debate can inflame the discussion.

However, the racial and ethnic wealth gap is a legitimate policy concern that is fundamental to our nation’s long-term economic security and to the well-being of families.

It’s not a secret that today’s racial and ethnic minorities are projected to become a majority of the U.S. population by the year 2043. We see this shift playing out in real time with a majority of babies now being born into households of color and with youths of color projected to become a majority of the 18 and under population within five years.

Yet, these children are growing up in economically vulnerable households. It may be shocking to some to learn that for every dollar of wealth held by the typical white family, the typical African American family owns five cents and the typical Latino family only owns six cents. Or, that households of color experienced the worst drop in wealth following the Great Recession, with the net worth of Latinos falling 66 percent, Asian Americans 54 percent, and African Americans 53 percent compared to only 16 percent for Whites.

As much as we would like to point to the progress our communities have made in striving for inclusion in America, it is clear that we have a long way to go to achieve equity. Given the stark wealth disparities, it is difficult for us to see how the fundamentals of the U.S. economy remain competitive in the latter half of the 21st century without a concentrated focus on strengthening the economic circumstances of the nation’s rising majority.

For this reason, we work every day to advance policies to combat poverty and build economic security among vulnerable households.  Our members are at the forefront of pushing for small business growth, a stronger social safety net, fair lending and housing policies, and quality education opportunities to give our kids a fighting chance to thrive. However, we can’t do it alone.

National leaders must prioritize investments and policies that build on economic security for communities of color, not only because it is a good thing to do but because every person in the country, regardless of race or ethnicity, will depend on the contributions of tomorrow’s work force.  From the strength of our GDP to the vitality of the tax base that funds essential programs and services—such as Social Security, public education, transportation—upon which we all depend for our livelihoods.

Given the composition of our Congressional districts, we see families of color living at the margins of our economy every day. The single mother working several jobs at the minimum wage to provide for her children and the families living with extended family members to make ends meet.  These hardworking families deserve the best policy ideas and tools that our democratic institutions have to offer.

Nevertheless, there are some who would rather deny the continued pernicious effects of race and ethnicity in our society than develop targeted solutions that actually address disparities. It is a shame that with overwhelming evidence pointing to the continued role of discrimination in our labor market, educational system and economy, that we fight an uphill battle to justify the need for investing in communities of color.

However, we firmly believe that racial wealth disparities are ignored at our nation’s peril and that the future prosperity of our country and all of its citizens depend on our sustained attention to eradicating this gross inequality.

Fudge has represented Ohio's 11th Congressional District since 2008: she is chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Hinojosa has represented Texas's 15th Congressional District since 1997: he is chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Chu has represented California's 27th Congressional District since 2009: she is chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.