Activists are succeeding in raising the minimum wages in cities and states across the country, and now Democratic leaders want to enshrine these victories in law. While higher wages will definitely help the hundreds of thousands of people who prepare and serve our meals, ring up our purchases, and care for our children and elders, a recent study I co-authored shows that the “Fight for $15” is not enough to remove structural barriers to economic prosperity. 

First, only those with jobs can benefit from higher wages, and our politicians consistently refuse to implement policies that will ensure access to good jobs for all. Long-term joblessness continues to hold back an intolerably high proportion of black Americans: 39.6 percent of unemployed blacks were out of work for 27 weeks or longer in 2014. 


Even though the unemployment rate for blacks finally dipped into single digits in April, at 9.6 percent it is still 7.4 percentage points higher than for whites, who are now at 4.7 percent. This disparity has been with us for so long that it no longer inspires outrage among those who continue to be robbed of the basic necessities of life. For the past forty years, blacks have been kept from employment at roughly twice the rate for whites.  

On this point, it is worth noting that most people of color who do obtain employment are low-wage workers: more than half of blacks and close to 60 percent of Latino workers make less than $15. As such, people who are advocating for a higher minimum wage are directly fighting for communities that have been systematically disadvantaged in this country.  

But the “Fight for $15” doesn’t address the key ingredient to economic and personal freedom: wealth, or what we own minus what we owe. My co-authors and I found that black and white families with similar incomes are not the same—in fact, their wealth levels are vastly different. White families that make up to $18,000 a year have a higher median wealth than blacks who make up to $54,000 a year. 

Another stunning comparison that emerges from our study is that white jobless households have twice the wealth of blacks working full-time. While low- (and no-) income whites are similar to blacks in having very little cash on hand to weather an emergency, whites have $15,000 of median wealth that provides greater capacity to invest in education, a small business, or a home. Blacks, who have zero median wealth, live on the edge of economic catastrophe. 

If higher wages cannot help economic stability, what can? One route toward democratizing wealth would be to institute Child Trust Accounts, or Baby Bonds. These accounts, holding an average of $20,000 that progressively rises to $60,000 for those with the least wealth, can provide an opportunity for wealth development for all newborns regardless of the financial position of their parents. Lest one think that politicians would never consider this proposal feasible, recall that Hillary Clinton has voiced her support for it.  

So, while it is indisputable that higher incomes do lead to greater wealth, this is little solace for blacks because simple increases in income cannot address our nation’s history of intentional choices—from slavery to Jim Crow to redlining—that have stripped them of long-term investment opportunities. Higher wages alone cannot remedy our systematic denial of opportunity to non-white communities for the past 400 years. 

To address these deep, discriminatory wealth differences between black and white families, we must look to public interventions such as Child Trust Accounts. This policy can democratize the opportunity to fulfill one’s personal potential regardless of what family we are born into—one of our nation’s most admirable aspirations that we’re not living up to.

Sridharan, JD, has worked on international and domestic anti-poverty platforms for the past decade. He is a member of the Experts of Color Network at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.