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Americans Greatly Overestimate Racial Economic Equality in Our Country

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 09, 2019

One of the defining features of the United States is a deep and long-lasting economic inequality between white and black people in terms of wages, income, and especially wealth.

Average wealth for white families is seven times higher than average wealth for black families. Worse still, median white wealth (wealth for the family in the exact middle of the overall distribution-wealthier than half of all families and less-wealthy than half) is twelve times higher than median black wealth. More than one in four black households have zero or negative net worth, compared to less than one in ten white families without wealth, which explains the large differences in the racial wealth gap at the mean and median. These raw differences persist, and are growing, even after taking age, household structure, education level, income, or occupation into account.

Despite the magnitude and persistence of this inequality, Americans (both black and white) vastly underestimate racial gaps in income and wealth.

For instance, one question in the study asked: “For every $100 earned by an average white family, how much do you think was earned by an average black family in 2013?” The average respondent guessed $85.59, meaning they thought black families make $14.41 less than average white families. The real answer, based on the Current Population Survey, was $57.30, a gap of $42.70. Study participants were off by almost 30 points.

The gap between estimate and reality was largest for a question about household wealth. Participants guessed that the difference between white and black households would be about $100 to $85, when in reality it’s $100 to $5. In other words, study participants were off by almost 80 points. Participants were also overly optimistic about differences in wages and health coverage.

The full paper is here. Closing that gap will be challenging, in part because the often racist mythology around it is persistent. In a report called
What We Get Wrong About Closing the Racial Wealth Gap, the authors conclude “that the wealth gap is structural in nature, cannot be solved through the individual actions of blacks, and can only be solved through ‘a major redistributive effort or another major public policy intervention to build black American wealth’”.