Bryan Mapenzi, M.Ed., CWP, Program Manager-Soul Space, OnTrack Program Resources

The racial wealth gap has a profound impact on communities of color. There are vast disparities in the attempt to achieve wealth, the American Dream, and the pursuit of happiness. All three have paved the way for America being ranked as one of the wealthiest countries in the world based on nominal GDP. However, there is another stark truth. The distribution of wealth in America is vastly unequal across racial lines. The racial wealth gap between communities of color and their White counterparts also creates a health-wealth gap. Not only do adults with lower socioeconomic status (SES) experience higher blood pressure, obesity, heart disease, and infectious disease, but they also are afflicted by a greater rate of mental illness. This truly is a holistic issue that, if tackled, can uplift both the health and wealth of Black and Brown people.

According to the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), White households had a median and mean family wealth of $188,200 and $983,400, respectively. This is six times larger than that of Black families and five times larger than that of Hispanic families. Those that self-identified as Pacific Islander, Asian, American, Indian, Native Hawaiian or multiple races have lower wealth than White families as well. However, they reported more wealth than Black and Hispanic families. These disparities

How do we address this inequality?

First and foremost, understanding the roots that this problem stems from is paramount. Wealth, unlike income, is built over generations by the accumulation and transfer of capital. Historically, people of color have experienced systemic racism and discriminatory practices, which inhibited their ability to build generational wealth. As a result, the racial wealth gap has continued to expand into a chasm of epic proportions.

Systemic policy solutions

The origin of the racial wealth gap stems from systemic barriers. Solutions must be entrenched in systemic policy change and equitable implementation. A 2018 report  published by the Samuel Dubois Cook Center for Racial Equity and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development details how often the onus is placed on Black people to be more “personally responsible” to change their wealth. The expectation is that disenfranchised groups “pull themselves up by the bootstraps.”

This rhetoric is harmful and does not lead to policy change. For the racial wealth gap to see tangible change, significant social transformation must occur through bold national policies. The following are examples of policy change that would address the racial wealth gap.

Creating a minimum wage that is a livable wage

There is a distinction between one’s income and their overall wealth. Nonetheless, many leverage their income to grow their wealth by allocating their wages toward appreciating assets. The federal minimum wage is $7.25, which is lower than the cost of living in every major city in the country. Establishing wealth is nearly impossible for minimum wage earners. For the Black and Brown folks who are barely making ends meet and barely earning a livable wage, growing wealth is nearly impossible. Creating a universal livable wage for all would allow for more people to thrive, both in the short-term and the long-term.

Favorable loans for racial minorities that encourage entrepreneurship

Many people of color have been left behind when it comes to starting their own businesses. This is a result of years of discriminatory practices like higher loan interest rates, or lack of representation. Entrepreneurship has been a daunting experience. Once people of color do become entrepreneurs, they have far less access to capital and less equity in their business.

Robust changes to the Minority Business Development Agency are required to impact the wealth gap. Audacious ideas include launching business center initiatives at minority-serving institutions, starting an economic equity grant program for people of color, and fund licensed minority investment companies with low-cost government-backed capital. This capital would then be invested into Latinx and Black communities. To strengthen our Indigenous and Asian communities, policies need to be focused on equitable economic development in ways that preserve collectivistic practices, identity, and overall culture. Actions like these require forethought and innovative thinking to mend the growing chasm of wealth between people of color and their White counterparts.

Racial equity in all policies

Although some believe that we live in a post-racial society, those who suffer the brunt of its existence would say otherwise. The beginning of any solution requires acknowledgement of a problem. We must identify how race plays a part in facets of everyday life. From inadequate healthcare, limited resources in secondary education, and poor infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods, many folks of color are also struggling with their health and well-being. Creating strategic partnerships that center racial equity across local, state, and national levels could be a catalyst for identifying issues and implementing concrete plans to close the gap.

Establishing baby bonds

Another intrepid idea that could aid in closing the wealth gap is creating baby bonds that would be federal endowments created at birth. Every year until the child turns 18, a designated amount would be contributed, based on the income and wealth of the child’s parents or guardians. Those who make less would be given more with the amount progressively decreasing for those who earn more.

This amount would grow with roughly 1-2 percent interest, so that recipients could use the funds to start a business, buy a home, or to pursue an education. A 2016 study noted that if baby bonds were implemented in 1979, the Latinx-White wealth divide would be closed by now. Additionally, the Black-White wealth divide would have shrunk by 82 percent. This initiative could be quite promising for significantly impacting the sizable racial wealth gap.

Canceling student loan debt

As of 2021, student loan debt totaled roughly 1.61 trillion dollars, growing six times faster than our nation’s economy. There are roughly 43-44 million federal student loan borrowers with an average balance just north of $37,000. According to the Roosevelt Institute, students of color tend to borrow more than their White counterparts, who generally have more wealth. This heavy borrowing, coupled with smaller amounts of wealth, creates a cycle of borrowers that are also crippled with higher debt than generations past.

Canceling student loan debt would immediately free up hundreds of billions of dollars. These funds could be contributed back to the economy in one fiscal year, followed by billions more over time. This progressive action would ensure future generations are not burdened by the growing crisis of exorbitant student loans. It would also decrease the racial wealth gap.

Parting thoughts

The racial wealth gap has been pervasive since the dawn of America and precipitated by systemic oppression. Many ideas like financial literacy, investing, education to increase future wages, and home ownership all hold merit. However, these individual measures alone will only make marginal differences at best in the racial wealth gap. To see true lasting change, individual transformation must be coupled with systemic policy transformation, tailored to righting the wrongs of the past.

As wellness is holistic and tethers all components together, we must remember that when one area suffers, the whole person suffers. In the wealthiest country in the world, it must be imperative to not just have an ideal of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but also to truly facilitate in the making of those words a reality. Tackling the racial wealth gap in thoughtful, equitable, and holistic ways is a great start.