Tag Archives: upward mobility

Education alone can’t solve America’s racial wealth gap

Earlier this month, the United States marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma voting rights marches. While much has changed since, racial wealth gaps have persisted over the past 30 years and even grown since the Great Recession. Today the richest 10 percent of white families own 65.1 percent of the nation’s wealth.

In a new report (PDF), Brandeis University’s Institute for Assets and Social Policy (IASP) and Demos, a progressive think tank where I work as a researcher, investigate what it would take to close this gap. The report concludes that racial disparities in wealth are driven by public policy decisions and calls for “racially aware policies” that could help reduce America’s rising wealth inequality. This includes eliminating disparities in homeownership rates, college graduation and the return on a college degree as well as the wealth return on income.


Conservatives and centrist commentators often present college education as a near panacea to reduce the racial wealth gap. But the Demos/IASP report challenges this claim. It found that increasing graduation rates would reduce the wealth disparity between black and white people by only 1 percent and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent. There are many possible reasons for this. For one, students of color take out more in student loans than white students. The debt burden detracts from wealth-building opportunities over a graduate’s lifetime. In addition, people of color are less likely to get into the most selective schools and face discrimination in labor markets after graduation. As a result, black and Latino students do not reap the same gains from a college education as their white counterparts.

In fact, race is a far greater determiner of wealth than education. As Demos blogger Matt Bruenig pointed out last year, black college graduates have less wealth than white high school dropouts. Using a new model called the racial wealth audit, Demos/IASP researchers found that the racial wealth gap between white and black families would be reduced 10 percent if the returns on college education could be equalized. But that’s not nearly enough to close the divide.



Bruenig’s previous research found that blacks and Latinos in the same income brackets have less wealth than whites. The Demos/IASP report confirms these findings: Black and Latino households with similar income distribution as whites would still face a substantial wealth gap. Eliminating income gaps would reduce the wealth gap by only 11 percent for black people and 9 percent for Latinos. Among black households, the average family would own $92,545 less wealth than an average white family. The average Latino family would own $94,033 less wealth than the average white family. This is because income distribution only tells part of the story. The remaining gap can be explained, in part, by the differences in opportunities to turn wages and salaries into wealth.

Controlling for the differential returns on every dollar of income shows a far greater effect on wealth disparity. In fact, for every $1 that accrues to black families with an increase in income, white families earn $4.06. For every $1 in wealth for additional income to Latinos, white families earn $5.37. The racial wealth audit shows that equalizing the return on income could reduce the wealth gap with white households by 43 percent for black households and by 50 percent for Latino households. But black and Latino families earning the same incomes as white families will still have only half the wealth.


It may be surprising to those who think that racial equity depends on equal opportunities in the labor market alone. But it’s important to remember that income is a flow, while wealth is a stock. White families have been building up wealth for centuries, thanks in part to the enslavement of black people and discrimination against blacks and Latinos, who were excluded from those gains.

A 2004 paper from economists Maury Gittleman and Edward Wolff provides some hint as to why income equity cannot solve the racial wealth gap. After controlling for income and with a similar return on capital, the authors found that black families save at the same rate as whites. Previous IASP research corroborates their findings (PDF). Differences in wealth outcomes are explained by factors such as inheritance, home ownership and unemployment.


As shown in the chart above, in another study (PDF), Wolff and Gittleman demonstrate that black and Latino families are far less likely to receive wealth transfers and that when they do, they tend to be smaller. Wealth transfers include inheritances and tax reductions, which disproportionately benefit white people. In fact, wealth transfers are the most unequal aspect of the wealth disparity. The Gini coefficient, the most common measure of inequality, runs from 0 (in which all wealth transfers are equal) to 1 (in which one household receives all wealth transfers). In 2007 the Gini of wealth transfers (primarily inheritances) was 0.961, compared with a 0.489 posttax and transfer Gini of income in the same year (PDF). That is, the distribution of wealth transfers is twice as unequal as the distribution of income. Even when households that did not receive a wealth transfer are excluded from the analysis, the Gini is still at 0.814. That means nearly all the wealth transfers in the U.S. go to a small group of people at the top.


The Demos/IASP report also shows the deficiency in the way millennials understand race in the United States. This is worrying given the fact that the millennial generation is often said to be postracial. Millennials are more likely to believe that racial disparities should be allowed to correct themselves than their parents are. In many ways, their views align with those of conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who in 2007 argued, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” However, it ignores the effects of history and how wealth replicates itself. In his pioneering book “The Son Also Rises,” historian Gregory Clark notes that:

Groups that seem to persist in low or high status, such as the black and the Jewish populations in the United States, are not exceptions to a general rule of higher intergenerational mobility. They are experiencing the same universal rates of slow intergenerational mobility as the rest of the population. Their visibility, combined with a mistaken impression of rapid social mobility in the majority population, makes them seem like an exception to a rule. They are instead the exemplary of the rule of low rates of social mobility.

Clark found that the residual effects of family wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations. A family’s wealth cache simply won’t go away without dramatic changes.

Even more concerning, the notion that racial inequality can take care of itself is not only embraced by white millennials but also by millennials of color (though to a lesser extent). This means that the institutionalized structural barriers to racial equity are not receiving enough attention. Many Americans fail to understand how much more unequally wealth and financial assets are distributed than income.


To parrot Roberts, the best way to reduce the racial wealth gap is to reduce the racial wealth gap — not simply to increase access to education or income. Policies that bolster home ownership — the leading wealth asset for most middle-class families — and those that reduce neighborhood segregation will do far more to close the wealth gap than changes in education. Other progressive ideas such as a baby bond program, which establishes wealth-building opportunities for those who have been excluded from them in the past, could substantially reduce wealth gaps.

Deeply entrenched wealth disparity is the product of history. Eliminating it entails reckoning with history as well as robust public policy reform. Ideological commitments to equality of opportunity without policy action won’t be enough.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera

Republican policies don’t help people of color

The United States continues to struggle with persistent racial gaps. There are large gaps between blacks and whites in terms of income, political representation, treatment in the criminal justice system, upward mobility and wealth. And the illusion of a postracial society, particularly in the younger generation, is hindering efforts to reduce these gaps. While Democrats say they are trying to alleviate racial gaps by increasing the ladders of opportunity for people of color, Republicans continue to pretend these gaps do not exist.

In their study “Racial Winners and Losers in American Party Politics,” political scientists Zoltan Hajnal and Jeremy Horowitz examine the two parties’ claims that their policies benefit racial and ethnic minorities. According to Hajnal’s and Horowitz’s research, Republican policies predominately benefit the richest white Americans. An oft-repeated defense of this fact is that Republicans make the pie bigger for everyone while Democrats work to redistribute wealth to the poor and people of color. The evidence demonstrates that, on the contrary, Democrats make the pie bigger for everyone, while Republicans redistribute income toward the rich and whites. (See chart below.)

The popular criticism that both parties are the arms of a corporate America also misses the granular changes that shape income distribution. As political scientist Nathan Kelly has shown (PDF), Democratic governments don’t just shift the income distribution with explicitly redistributive programs; they change pretax income distributions to favor the wealthy through what he terms market conditions such as regulation. Sociologists David Brady and Kevin Leicht find the same effect from right-wing governments, both before and after taxes and transfers. The changes combine to dramatically improve the income distribution under a Democratic president.

Hajnal and Horowitz looked at available data for changes in income, poverty and unemployment under every president since 1948. The authors lagged the data by one year since presidential actions take time to trickle down. For example, a decrease in black poverty in 2009 would be credited to George W. Bush’s administration. As shown in the table below, all racial and ethnic groups appear to benefit economically more under Democratic administrations than Republican ones.


Although they still benefit significantly more from a Democratic president, the gap between the two parties is the smallest for whites. Hajnal and Horowitz estimate that black poverty declined by 38.6 percent under Democratic leadership, while it grew by 3 percent under Republicans. From 1948 to 2010, black unemployment fell by 7.9 percentage points under Democrats and increased by 13.7 points during Republican administrations. Black income grew by $23,281 (adjusted for inflation) under Democrats and by only $4,000 under Republicans.

“Put simply: However measured, blacks made consistent gains under Democratic presidents and suffered regular losses under Republicans,” the authors said. While there’s limited data, the findings hold true for Latinos and Asians.

It appears at first glance that Republicans actively transfer income to whites through government. Of course, there could be another explanation for this phenomenon. In a study published last July, Princeton economists Alan Blinder and Mark Watson found that from 1947 to 2013, gross domestic product, employment, corporate profits and productivity grew faster under Democrats than Republicans. The authors also noted that unemployment and deficits shrank and the economy climbed out of recession in less time under Democrats. (See chart.)


Blinder and Watson attribute half these benefits to productivity shocks, consumer expectations and favorable economic conditions. They leave the other half unexplained, but studies suggest that liberal policies increase growth by boosting wages and perceptions about income security. By contrast, Republican policies slow growthand immiserate the population. The researchers also found that the economy grew even faster when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the presidency.

It might appear that Democrats are better at managing the economy. However, as Hajnal and Horowitz point out, economic growth alone is not enough to explain racial gaps under the two parties. In fact, the results remain unchanged even after controlling for factors such as inflation, the size of the labor force, the price of oil and GDP. They found that black incomes grew by $1,000 more each year under Democrats, while poverty fell 2.6 points faster and unemployment dropped by 1 point more.

Black income growth stalls when a Democratic president is paired with a Republican Congress. Furthermore, the longer Democrats are in power, the stronger the economic gains for blacks. By contrast, blacks fare worse when Republicans are in office longer. There are similar racial gaps in the criminal justice system. Black and white incarceration rates fell dramatically (a net of 61 fewer arrests per 1,000 residents) under Democratic presidents, while they increased (36 more arrests per 1,000 residents) under Republican leadership.

Last place aversion

This raises questions about why whites largely lean Republican in elections and who benefits from Republican control of our government. The answers are intertwined. As Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels explains, economic growth is shared far more equally under Democratic presidents than under Republicans. (See chart below.) Contrary to popular belief, the incomes of the very rich increase more under Democrats than they do under Republicans. While pretax and transfer incomes are rather similar, the main shift occurs posttax and transfer.


Similarly, in absolute terms, whites do better under Democratic than under Republican leadership. But that doesn’t really matter. People weigh their well-being relative to those around them. There is strong evidence that whites often oppose actions against inequality because of “last place aversion,” the desire to ensure that there is a class of people below oneself. Among white voters, racial bias is strongly correlated with lower support of redistributive programs. For example, research shows that opposition to welfare is driven by racial anger. Approximately half of the difference between social spending in the U.S. and Europe can be explained by racial animosity.

Democrats enjoy a broad-based support among the American electorate. But they lose elections because of enthusiasm gap, which is attributed to the party’s inability to rally a diverse coalition of educated, working-class whites, people of color and unmarried women. By contrast, the Republican base is easy to mobilize, allowing them to turn the government into an efficient patronage machine for whites and the top 1 percent of U.S. earners, using what Suzanne Mettler, a professor of government at Cornell University, calls the “submerged state” — subtle tax breaks and benefits such as marriage subsidies and the mortgage interest deduction.

All in all, those who claim that Democrats have abandoned the middle class or failed blacks are missing a larger story. While the Democratic Party has been imperfect in responding to the policy demands and preferences ofblacks and low-income voters, it has done a far better job of improving their condition than Republicans have. Conservatives’ attempts to rebrand themselves as beneficial to the working class or people of color will succeed only if voters remain unaware of their actual record.

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

How the Supreme Court is about to explode America’s racial wealth gap

When discussing race, the conservative argument is best expressed by the famous words of Chief Justice John Roberts: “The best way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Translation: America has done bad things in its history, but those bad things are gone now, so we should move past those horrors and look forward.

Conservatives believe that if blacks and Latinos simply work hard, get a good education and earn a good income, historical racial wealth gaps will disappear. The problem is that this sentiment ignores the ways that race continues to affect Americans today. A new report from Demos and Brandeis University, “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters,” makes this point strongly. The report shows that focusing on education alone will do little to reduce racial wealth gaps for households at the median, and that the Supreme Court, through upcoming decisions, could soon make the wealth gap explode.


Wealth is the whole of an individual’s accumulated assets, not the amount of money they make each year. As such, in his recent book, “The Son Also Rises,” Gregory Clark finds that the residual benefits of wealth remain for 10 to 15 generations. To understand why that matters, consider the fact that Loretta Lynch, Obama’s recent nomination for U.S. attorney general, is the great-great-granddaughter of a slave who escaped to freedom. (That’s four generations). Consider also that most people on Social Security today went to segregated schools. (That’s two generations.) If Clark is correct in his thesis, then the impacts of wealth built on the foundations of American slavery and segregation will continue to affect Lynch’s great-great-great grandchildren.

It is therefore unsurprising that addressing just one aspect of this disparity cannot solve racial wealth gaps. Demos/Brandeis find that equalizing graduation rates would reduce the wealth gap between blacks and whites by 1 percent, and between Latinos and whites by 3 percent at the median. Equalizing the distribution of income would only reduce the wealth gap by 11 percent for blacks and 9 percent for Latinos. Part of the durability of wealth gaps is the disproportionate benefits that whites still enjoy: They face less job market discrimination and are more likely to reap a big inheritance, for example. This means that the returns to education and income are generally higher for whites. But even after controlling for these returns, income and education can’t explain the entire wealth gap.

Because America’s primary vehicle for wealth accumulation is our homes, much of the explanation of the racial wealth gap lies in unequal homeownership rates. According to the Brandeis/Demos analysis, equalizing homeownership would reduce the racial wealth gap by 31 percent for blacks and 28 percent for Latinos. This effect is muted because centuries of discrimination—including racial exclusion from neighborhoods where home values appreciate, redlining, and discriminatory lending practices—mean that people of color are segregated into relatively poor neighborhoods. Indeed, in 1969, civil rights activist John Lewis bought a three-bedroom house for $35,000 in Venetian Hills, Atlanta. He and his wife were the first black family in the middle-class neighborhood. In his book, “Walking with the Wind,” he notes that, “within two years… the white owners began moving out.” Had the value of his house simply kept up with inflation, it would be worth $222,881 today. But Zillow shows that three-bedroom houses in Venetian Hills, Atlanta, are currently selling for around $65,000 to $100,000.


Systematic disinvestment in communities of color means that even when blacks and Latinos own their homes, they are worth far less than white homes. In addition, blacks and Latinos are targets of shady lending. They are more likely to be offered a subprime loan even if they are qualified to receive a better rate. In the wake of the financial crisis, big banks like Blackstone scooped up foreclosed homes and are now offering them to people of color to rent, further pulling wealth out of these communities to benefit rich whites.

The financial crisis had a disparate impact on people of color. A Center for Responsible Lending report examined the loans originated during the subprime boom (2005 to 2008), and found that blacks and Latinos were almost twice as likely to have foreclosed during the crisis. The New York Times reported that Wells Fargo “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” They discovered that loan officers “pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages” and “stated in an affidavit… that employees had referred to blacks as ‘mud people’ and to subprime lending as ‘ghetto loans.’”

These problems are troubling, but, as unlikely as it seems, things are about to get even worse. The Supreme Court is set to decide Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, a landmark case challenging the disparate impact test, which allows a practice to be considered discriminatory if it disproportionately and negatively impacts communities of color, even if a discriminatory intent can’t be proven.

The case involves an excellent example of why disparate impact is so important: Nearly all of the tax credits that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had approved were in predominantly non-white neighborhoods. At the same time, the department disproportionately denied the claims in white neighborhoods. A federal judgedecided that regardless of racial intent, the result had a “disparate impact” and increased neighborhood segregation. As Nikole Hannah-Jones has extensively documented, disparate impact has been crucial in holding banks accountable. For instance, the Justice Department used it to settle with Bank of America for $335 million after it was discovered that a mortgage company purchased by BofA had been pushing blacks and Latinos into subprime loans when a similar white borrower would have qualified for a prime loan.Because there was no official policy that required blacks and Latinos to get worse loans, the case would not have been won but for the disparate-impact statute.

The Supreme Court has already decimated the Voting Rights Act, opening the door for onerous restrictions on voting. They upheld a law banning affirmative action at state universities and have already crushed integration efforts at K-12 schools. Worryingly, as Demos Senior Fellow Ian Haney López told ProPublica, “It is unusual for the Court to agree to hear a case when the law is clearly settled. It’s even more unusual to agree to hear the issue three years in a row.” Given the importance of neighborhood poverty to upward mobility and wealth building, this case had the potential to be the most destructive, dramatically curtailing opportunity and making the wealth gap into a chasm. As Patrick Sharkey notes, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.”

Demos and Brandeis suggest policies to boost homeownership, like better enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, lowering the cap on the mortgage interest deduction so blacks and Latinos can benefit and authorizing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to allow homeowners to modify their loans. In addition, America needs to systematically invest in poor neighborhoods. Equalizing public school education funds for poor and nonwhite schools would increase home prices in poor neighborhoods. In addition, a baby bond program would directly reduce wealth gaps by giving children money that could be used for a down payment on a house or an investment in their education. What’s clear is that we cannot simply hope that wealth gaps will disappear. These gaps were created by racially biased federal policies and need to be remedied by public policy as well. Government created the white middle class in the 1950s; now it’s time to create a black and Latino middle class. The Supreme Court, with its supposedly race-neutral philosophy, will only make it more difficult to close racial wealth gaps.

Catherine Ruetschlin is a Senior Policy Analyst at Demos and co-author of the report “The Racial Wealth Gap: Why Policy Matters.

Why Washington’s gridlock won’t go away

Pundits have suggested that the Republican control of U.S. Senate will lead to a new era of bipartisanship, which will offer new solutions on immigration, the environment and tax reform. These arguments are extremely myopic. A critical look at the recent structural shifts in the American political system shows that the gridlock in Washington is caused by increasing inequality and benefits the rich.

To be sure, Congress is facing an almost unparalleled level of gridlock. Since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, we have seen an unprecedented use of the filibustervery little major legislationlong delays in mundane appointments, government shutdowns and highly partisan attacks on a progressive legislative agenda.

To understand the current congressional gridlock, it’s important to look at who is benefiting from the stalemate. A recent report published by the University of Tennessee at Knoxville found (PDF) that gridlock in the U.S. political system benefits the rich and has significantly contributed to rising inequality. The findings have been confirmed by Alfred Stepan and Juan Linz, who conclude that the structure of the Senate, the majority-constraining capacity of veto players and the filibuster all contribute to rising inequality.

The question then becomes, Why have we not seen the same level of gridlock in our lifetimes?

The growing economic power of U.S. elites coincides with increasing political dominance. Numerous studies have shown that the U.S. political system is no longer responsive to the electorate. In part this is because the United States’ political system is designed to be slow moving, with multiple checks and balances. In addition, as with other developed countries, the United States has incredibly low voter turnout. The 2014 midterm elections saw the worst voter turnout in 72 years (a dismal 36.3 percent of eligible voters). Higher voter turnout is positively correlated internationally with higher income redistribution (PDF, see chart on page 27). A vast body of literature shows that low-income voter turnout leads to more-left-leaning governments. The U.S. political system has had persistent class bias, but in the past these factors did not prevent stymie important legislation that benefits the poor.

AJAM Figure1

The dramatic reduction in top tax rates and the deregulation of finance in the 1980s opened the door for mass inequality. Rising inequality had three important effects on U.S. politics. First, it allowed the rich to take over the political system. Research shows (PDF) that the richest 0.01 percent of Americans now provide 40 percent of political contributions — up from 10 percent in 1982.

AJAM Figure2

By nearly every measure, the rich are far more likely to participate in the political process, and the superrich make up most of the donors. A 2013 study in The Journal of Economic Perspectives found (PDF):

In 1980, the top contributor … gave $1.72 million (in 2012) dollars, nearly six times the amount given by the next largest contributor. In 2012, the two largest donors were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who gave $56.8 million and $46.6 million, respectively. Other members of the Forbes 400 accompany the Adelsons; 388 current members are on record as having made political contributions. They account for 40 of the 155 individuals who contributed $1 million or more to state and federal elections during the 2012 election cycle.

At a time when Congress increasingly dominated by superrich (and white) politicians, these contributions buy enormous political influence. A similar study by Jesse H. Rhodes and Brian F. Schaffner found (PDF) that “millionaires receive about twice as much representation when they comprise just 5 percent of the district’s population than the poorest wealth group does when it makes up 50 percent of the district.” As Duke University professor Nicholas Carnes has demonstrated (PDF), “representatives from working-class occupations exhibit more liberal economic preferences than other legislators, especially those from profit-oriented industries.” But those measures often die or are shelved in deeply gridlocked Congress.

Second, rising inequality has created ideological structures. As the rich grow richer, they justify their wealth by inflating their sense of intelligence and superiority. The poor and middle class begin to accept this narrative,forgoing their desire for redistribution. Since individuals understand inequity by relating it to their circumstances, higher inequality leads to its growing acceptance. Given the United States’ racist history, whites try to avoid feeling being in the last place by punitively harming blacks. In turn, the rising inequality erodes the social trust necessary to reduce inequality.

“The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs,” Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner, wrote in a 2005 study (PDF) published by World Politics. “However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.” Because the rich views the poor as personally responsible for their failings, they see no reason to help them up the ladder. A recent Gallup poll found that fewer Americans than ever believe that hard work can help one get ahead in life. Data from the American National Election Survey shows the percentage of people who say the government is run “by a few big interests looking out for themselves” has grown dramatically. (See chart below.)


Finally, amid rising inequality, both Republicans and Democrats have moved to the right, rejecting liberal economic policies to woo wealthy donors. Democrats have struggled to maintain their coalition of single women, people of color and educated progressives. In fact, as Benjamin Page, Larry Bartels and Jason Seawright noted in the journal Perspectives on Politics last year (PDF), “on economic issues wealthy Democratic respondents tended to be more conservative than Democrats in the general population.”

Studies show that the strength of unions is a far more important bulwark against inequality than the number of Democrats in Congress. “The effect of the Democratic Party [on the rate of financial deregulation] is not very large, but rather varies along with the strength of unions,” writes Christopher Witko in an upcoming paper on the rise of finance. He argues the Democratic Party has been attempting to win the votes of professionals (that is, rich people), pulling them to the right. Other studies confirm that the decline of unions has led to steep rise in inequality.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest Americans have increasingly favored one party. In a 2003 paper, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal examined 40 years of data and found that “partisanship has become more stratified by income.” In a later study, the researchers show how tight polarization tracks with inequality (PDF, see chart on page 108) and wages in the financial sector. American National Election data also confirm the rising class polarization of the electorate, particularly at the 68th to 95th income percentile range, which went from a nearly 40 point margin preference for Democrats in 1952 (58 percent Democratic, 20 percent of Republican) to a 5 point margin for Republicans (43 percent Democrat, 48 percent Republican) in 2008. In the 2008 elections, the poorest Americans (below the 16th income percentile) preferred Democrats by 42 points, while the richest (above the 96th income percentile) preferred Republicans by 40 points.

AJAM Figure4

Widening class divide

The increasing class divide within the two parties has made gridlock inevitable. But Republicans automatically win from gridlock. The asymmetric partisanship of the last six years is driven by a simple dynamic: Government inaction benefits the wealthy and harms the working class. When Republicans are in the majority, they hollow the government out from the inside with tax cuts, deregulation and austerity. When they are not in power, the easiest way to benefit the rich is to dither. In essence, the GOP serves a 1 percent agenda, based entirely on making government fail. “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal,” House Speaker John Boehner said in a moment of honesty earlier this summer.

Rising economic and political inequality have coincided over the past three decades. As the rich have grown richer, they have been able to exercise more political power. Their aim is to allow laissez-faire to do its dirty deeds by preventing the government from working for the poor and middle class. As a result, conservative-leaning rich Americans oppose reducing economic inequality. (See chart below.) Politics is nothing more than a class war by other means. The problem is that the poor are losing. Nothing that happened in this year’s midterm elections will change that.

AJAM Figure5

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera

Why is Cuomo Leaving Wall Street Cash on the Table?

Co-Written with Lenore Palladino.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has claimed that he’s “a progressive Democrat who’s broke.” But in his most recent executive budget, he proposes ending a little-known tax that could make all the difference. For the last century, New York State has had a stock-transfer tax, which taxes nearly every stock trade. Since 1981, it’s been instantly rebated—no money is actually collected—leaving potential revenue on the table even as financial profits skyrocket. Cuomo suggests ending the tax, citing “unnecessary administrative work.” But New York’s stock-transfer tax can be easily re-implemented, instead putting that administrative work to good use.

Cuomo should work to end or reduce the tax rebate, rather than take the tax off the books. New York isn’t broke so much as unequal: one in every twenty-two people in New York City is a millionaire, while 56,987 New Yorkers live in homeless shelters. A tax like this could raise hundreds of millions of dollars.

The financial sector grew as a share of the economy by 175 percent from 1947 to 2013. This rapid growth has led many to observe that the financial sector increasingly relies on rent-seeking: making money from moving money around only to make more money. Financiers no longer need bother with productive investments.

Wall Street is flush with cash, but the state’s coffers continue to struggle. Public employment in New York dropped by 4.2 percent between December 2007 and June 2014. A modest 0.02 percent tax on stock transactions would raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually. New York City faces incredible risks from climate change. A recent report estimates that, without adaptation, the annual costs of climate change will be between $3.8 billion and $7.5 billion per year at mid-century. The stock-transfer tax could provide, on its own, a major head start toward protecting New York City from devastation.

Opponents of a tax on stock transactions claim that it would reduce trading and jobs and harm the economy, and it would certainly slow down short-term, highly speculative trading to some extent. The real question is: What are the costs that New Yorkers face right now from runaway speculation and insufficient public investment? Our research finds that New York would gain more from the revenue raised, which could be funneled toward job creation, even though falling trade may cause some job loss in the financial sector. Of course, some of those astronomical profits that Wall Street banks keep reporting could be put toward the tax as well.

Finance has increased inequality, pulled money out of the job-creating economy and largely sustained itself on grift. To reduce these negative effects, we should tax financial transactions as well. In the wake of the recent financial crisis, a tax could be a way to reduce systemic risk. Although the New York stock-transfer tax would cover only stock trades, it could provide a model for a more comprehensive national tax on a broader range of financial transactions, like derivatives.

Such a tax isn’t unprecedented. After all, New York had one in place from 1905 to 1981. From 1914 to 1966, the United States levied a modest tax on sales and transfers of stock. House Speaker Jim Wright pushed for a renewed federal tax in 1987, proposing a fee of 0.25 to 0.50 percent on the buyer and seller in each securities transaction, highlighting the tax’s progressive aspects. More recently, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Peter DeFazio proposed the Wall Street Trading and Speculators Tax Act, which would assess a tax of 0.03 percent on trades of stocks, bonds, futures, options, swaps and credit-default swaps and would generate some $350 billion over nine years. Representative Keith Ellison proposed the Inclusive Prosperity Act, which would entail a 0.5 percent tax on stocks, a 0.1 percent tax on bond trades and 0.005 percent tax on derivatives; that bill was projected to raise similar amounts.

On May 6, 2014, ten European nations issued a joint statement that a financial tax would commence in 2016 as a means to reduce speculation and raise revenue. The initial tax will focus on the trading of stocks and some derivatives. The European Commission estimates that a broad tax could raise 31 billion euros ($39 billion) in annual revenue.

In New York, revenue is desperately needed. Governor Cuomo should support Assemblyman Phil Steck’s bill, which would begin collection for 40 percent of the tax and was supported by economist Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs has said that the “financial transactions tax is a solid idea that has been resisted by Wall Street for years.” Instead of repealing the tax, New York should restart collection and use the revenues to stimulate equitable economic growth.

This article originally appeared in the print version of The Nation and online.

Inequality benefits the rich and hurts the poor

For a long time, the right has argued that we shouldn’t worry about inequality because the true concern is the reduction of poverty. Conservatives also maintained that higher levels of inequality were unimportant because “a rising tide would lift all boats,” and high levels of inequality propelled the economy forward. New research by Roy van der Weide and Branko Milanovic decimates these myths. They find that inequality doesn’t fuel growth for the whole economy, but rather, just the rich.

Before we get to the research of van der Weide and Milanovic, it’s important to understand how mainstream thought on inequality and growth has changed recently. For a long time, mainstream economists didn’t spend much time worrying about distribution. Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared, “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”

Once rampant inequality did become an increasingly mainstream concern, Martin Feldstein insisted that the question is “not inequality but poverty.” Economists believed that redistribution slowed down economic growth, and that attempts to reduce inequality would, as a result, only worsen poverty. The reasoning had at least two strands of thought: First, since the poor tend to consume most of their income, it was good for the rich to have more wealth to invest in the future — inequality would increase savings. Second, inequality provided incentives for individuals to work harder to take home more of the pie.

There is now a burgeoning literature showing that these assumptions aren’t true, and that inequality actually reduces growth. That’s because the reasons for accepting inequality were actually backwards. Instead of motivating the rich to invest, higher inequality meant that the poor took on more and more debt, destabilizing the economy. Without enough poor and middle-class families consuming their products, businesses had fewer customers, and less revenue. Further, instead of providing the poor and middle class an incentive to better their lives, higher inequality gave the rich a reason to pull up the ladder, leaving the poor behind. Instead of working harder, the rich sit back on their wealth. The poor and middle class, disenchanted by lack of opportunity, have less money to invest in their own education (and are therefore are increasingly burdened by debt). Inequality thereby reduces growth by reducing both demand and upward mobility.

So Milanovic and van der Weide decided to investigate how inequality affects growth across the income spectrum. They used a state-level survey conducted once every decade to estimate annualized income growth at different income percentiles. What the researchers find is that the old story of “trickle down” economics have no support in the data – instead, inequality boosts growth only for the rich.

The charts below show income growth across different percentiles. Each line shows annualized growth over a decade with the horizontal axis defining growth by quintile. The first chart shows that during the relatively equal period of the 1960 to 1970 (red), when inequality was lower, growth was strong and equally distributed (it actually slightly favored the poor). During the 1980-to-2000 period (blue and green) growth favored the rich; however, their gains weren’t enough to make up for the massive losses to the poor and middle class. Finally, in the period between 2000-to-2010, growth for everyone was abysmal in the wake of a massive financial crisis (see the purple line of the final chart). 

As Milanovic tells Salon, “You know it used to be that the U.S. growth was pro-poor, in the sense, that the growth rates among the poor were higher than amongst the rich. Now it’s the opposite.”

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When the authors dug deeper and looked at individual states, they find that, “inequality is negatively associated… with subsequent real growth for the population located below the 25th percentile, and positively with growth for the population belonging to the top decile.” In simple language: Inequality benefits the rich and harms the poor. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats — just the luxury yachts.

Using the data the authors have developed, we can discover what growth would look like in a more equitable society. The chart below shows annual income growth between 1960 and 2010 by percentile in red. The chart is sloped upward, meaning that the income of the richest grew by 1.8 percent each year, while the growth of the poorest grew by .7 percent each year. However, if inequality was reduced by one standard deviation (the difference between Connecticut and South Carolina) across the country, income growth for the poor would more than double, to 1.6 percent each year (blue line).

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This has important political implications. First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. Inequality benefits the rich immensely. Second, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats has been so utterly disproved it should be embarrassing to state in public. Yet reformicons like Michael Strain continue to repeat the mantra, “ Growth Beats Inequality.” That is false, Between 1960 and 2010, GDP increased by an annualized rate of 3.2 percent (a total of  378 percent) but incomes for the poorest 5 percent increased by only .7 percent a year. However, if we had reduced our gini coefficient (the standard measure of inequality) by only 9 percent, to the level of Japan, we could have doubled income growth for the poorest Americans.

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There is also hope, however. The growth rate of the 1960-to-70s was rapid and equitable. Compared with growth rates from the massively unequal 1990-to-2010 period, everyone was better off. So there is some reason to believe the rich could support more equitable policies. But the rich won’t be so easy to persuade – in a massively unequal society, even modest economic growth still benefits economic elites. Don’t worry about growth, worry about inequality.

A version of this article originally appeared on Salon. 

Five reasons why democracy hasn’t fixed inequality

One of the most longstanding hopes (on the left) and fears (on the right) about democratic politics is that voters of modest means will use their electoral weight to level the economic playing field. In a market economy, the median voter’s income will invariably be below the national average creating an apparently compelling opportunity for a politics of redistribution. This makes the sustained increase in income inequality in the United States and other developed countries a bit of a puzzle. One common suggestion, offered recently by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, is ignorance. Voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is.”

But while Americans understanding of economic trends is certainly imperfect, the data suggest that the broad trends are known to the population. Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns, for instance, find that when asked to compare the ratio of the highest paid occupation and the lowest, Americans at the bottom of the income distribution do believe inequality is high and rising. In 1987, Americans as reported that the highest-paid occupation took home 20 times what the lowest paid occupation did – by 2000, they thought the gap had grown to 74 times.

A recent Pew survey finds that 65% of adults agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the past 10 years, only 8% say it has decreased. A Gallup poll from earlier this year suggests that 67% of Americans report that they are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the income and wealth distribution in the U.S.

If ignorance doesn’t explain inaction, what does? These five factors are the most important culprits:

1) Upward mobility

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

According to research from Carina Engelhardt and Andreas Wagner, around the world people overestimate the level of upward mobility in their society.

They find that redistribution is lower then when actual social mobility is but also lower where perceived mobility is higher. Even if voters perceive the level of inequality correctly, their tendency to overstate the level of mobility can undermine support for redistribution. In another study Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara find that, Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity (a mythology) are more likely to oppose redistribution. Using data from 33 democracies, Elvire Guillaud finds that those who believe they have experienced downward mobility in the past decade are  32% more likely to support redistribution. A relatively strong literature now supports this thesis.

2) Inequality undermines solidarity

Enns and Kelly find, rather counterintuitively, that when “inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” That is, higher inequality leads to less demand for redistribution. This is perhaps because as society becomes less equal, its members have less in common and find it less congenial to act in solidarity. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner argue that, “the best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

As inequality increases, the winner-take-all economy leads voters try to look out for their own children. The period during which overall inequality has risen has seen a massive increase in more affluent families’ spending on enrichment for their own children.

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

Chris Dillow points to research by Klaus Abbink, David Masclet and Daniel Mirza who find in social science experiments that disadvantaged groups are more likely to sacrifice their wealth to reduce the wealth of the advantaged group when inequality was lower than when it was higher. Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

3) Political misrepresentation

Ideological factors can’t tell the whole story. Many Americans support redistributive programs like the minimum wage and support for the idea that hard work leads to success has plummeted in the last decade. A further important reason for the lack of political response to inequality relates to the structure of American political institutions, which fail to translate the desires of less-advantaged Americans for more redistribution into actual policy change. Support for this thesis comes from many corners of the political science field, including Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, andKay Lehman Schlozman. Research by five political scientists finds that status quo bias of America’s often-gridlocked congress serves to entrench inequality.

More simply, lower-income Americans tend to vote at a lower rate. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with lower turnout inequality also have lower income inequality. Elsewhere, Franko finds that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending policies and have less generous health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Kim Hill, Jan Leighley and Angela Hilton-Andersson find, “an enduring relationship between the degree of mobilization of lower-class voters and the generosity of welfare benefits.” Worryingly, Frederick Solt finds that, “citizens of states with greater income inequality are less likely to vote and that income inequality increases income bias in the electorate.” That is, as inequality increases, the poor are less likely to turn out, further exacerbating inequality.

4) Interest-group politics

The decline of labor unions has decreased the political importance of poor voters, because unions were an important “get-out-the-vote” machine. A recent study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler finds that the decline in union strength has reduced low-income and middle-income turnout. But labor’s influence (or lack thereof) is also important when the voting is done. Research finds that policy outcomes in the United States are heavily mediated by lobbying between interest groups, so organization matters.

Martin Gilens writes, “Given the fact that most Americans have little independent influence on policy outcomes, interest groups like unions may be the only way to forward their economic interests and preference.” His research indicates that unions regularly lobby in favor of policies broadly supported by Americans across the income spectrum, in contrast to business groups, which lobby in favor of policies only supported by the wealthy.

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

It’s no surprise then that numerous studies have linked the decline in union membership and influence with rising inequality.

5) Racial conflict

A recent study by Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson finds that when white Americans are reminded that the nation is becoming more diverse, they become more conservative. Dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queens” have long driven whites to oppose social safety net programs they disproportionately benefit from. Research from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam indicates that racial bias among white voters is strongly correlated with hostility toward means-tested social assistance programs. Another study by Steven Beckman and Buhong Zhen finds that blacks are more likely to support redistribution even if their incomes are far above average and that poor whites are more likely to oppose redistribution.

In other words, a massive public education campaign about the extent of income inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the kind of redistributive policies liberals favor. The real obstacles to policy action on inequality are more deeply ingrained in the structure of American politics, demographics, and interest group coalitions. Insofar as there is a role for better information to play, it likely relates not to inequality but tosocial mobility which remains widely misperceived and is a potent driver of feelings about the justice of economic policy. As John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Stronger unions, more lower income voter turnout and policies to reduce the corrupting influence of money on the political process would all work to reduce inequality. It will take political mobilization, not simply voter education to achieve change. The wonks have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

There is no American dream for black children

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, have once again made the nation consider the durability of racial injustice as a defining factor of the American experience. Black children go to increasingly segregated schools, experience significantly less mobility than whites and are far more likely to be incarcerated for nonviolent crimes. The American dream has always been defined by upward mobility, but for black Americans, it’s harder to get into the middle class, and a middle-class lifestyle is more precarious.

There are numerous factors that help explain why blacks have lower levels of upward mobility, but a surprisingly unpersuasive one is family structure. Conservatives like to tout the research of Raj Chetty and others who find that, “The fraction of children living in single-parent households is the single strongest correlate of upward income mobility among all the variables we explored.” But this observation comes with a caveat — children in two-parent households fare worse in areas with large numbers of single parents. There is reason to believe the causation is reversed. Rather than single-parent households causing low upward mobility, low upward mobility and rampant poverty lead to single-parenthood.

Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research — Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine — find that single motherhood is largely driven by poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They write,

The combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “Young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

Most recently, Bhashkar Mazumder finds that, among those between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. His research finds that the role of two-parent families for mobility is less important than conservatives assert. While living in a two-parent households increases upward mobility for blacks, it has no effect on upward mobility for white children, nor does it affect downward mobility for either race.  If marriage has a significant effect, it is not marriage per se, but rather income and parenting effects that are at work; married people by default have more incomes and more time to spend with children. The solution, then, is paid leave, universal pre-K and government-provided daycare, not wealthy conservatives clutching their pearls and chastising young people for not getting hitched.

So, marriage fails to explain black-white gaps in mobility. What, then, is responsible for the lack of upward mobility among blacks?

1. Housing segregation

Racial segregation explains how it’s so easy for the black middle class to slip back into poverty. As sociologist John R. Logan writes, “The most recent census data show that on average, black and Hispanic households live in neighborhoods with more than one and a half times the poverty rate of neighborhoods where the average non-Hispanic white lives.” This has profound implications for upward mobility.

A 2009 study by Patrick Sharkey finds that, “Neighborhood poverty alone accounts for a greater portion of the black-white downward mobility gap than the effects of parental education, occupation, labor force participation, and a range of other family characteristics combined.” Sharkley finds that if black and white children grew up in similar environments, the downward mobility gap would shrink by 25-to-33 percent. As the chart below shows, black children are far more likely to grow up in high poverty disadvantaged neighborhoods, which makes upward mobility difficult. (Source)

2. War on drugs and mass incarceration

The war on drugs disproportionately targets people of color: One in 12 working-age African-American men are incarcerated. While whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession. The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. The effects of incarceration on upward mobility are profound.

Bruce Western finds that, “by age 48, the typical former inmate will have earned $179,000 less than if he had never been incarcerated.” This impact, however, is more profound for blacks. Western finds that incarceration reduces lifetime earnings for whites by 2 percent, but Hispanics and blacks by 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. All of this means that men who are incarcerated will live a life at the bottom. For men who begin life in the lowest income quintile, only 2 percent of those who are incarcerated will make it into the top fifth, while 15 percent of those who are not incarcerated will.

3. Segregated employment opportunities

In “When Work Disappears,” Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson points to the importance of occupational segregation — the fact that African-Americans who are often concentrated in poor urban areas struggle to get jobs in the suburbs or places with a long commute. Only 2.9 percent of white workers rely on public transportation, compared to 8.3 percent of Latino workers and 11.5 percent percent of black workers.

An excellent example of occupational segregation is in Silicon Valley, where data released after pressure from advocacy groups like Color of Change suggests that at Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Google and eBay, only 3 to 4 percent of workers are black or Hispanic. However, a study by Working Partnerships USA finds that, “While Blacks and Latinos make up only 3 to 4 percent of the disclosed companies’  core tech workforce, they are 41 percent of all private security guards in Silicon Valley, 72 percent of all janitorial and building cleaning workers, and 76 percent of all grounds maintenance workers.” (Source)

Much of the problem is social networks. Recent research by Nancy DiTomaso finds that favoritism perpetuates inequality, even in the absence of racial bias. She finds that most employees relied on social networks to obtain a majority of the jobs they held in their lifetime. Because social networks tend to be segregated, this fosters occupational segregation. Miles Corak shows that many children get their first job through their parents, further solidifying the effect of social networks on occupational segregation.

Marianne Bertrand finds that changing the names on résumés to those that are traditionally white or black affects call-backs for jobs. White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get called for an initial interview. She also finds that whites with better résumés were 30 percent more likely to get a call-back than whites with worse résumés, but for blacks, more experience only increased call-backs by 9 percent. Another barrier to employment can be social networks.

4. Wealth gaps

Wealth is an important part of a middle-class lifestyle. When a family or individual is struck with illness or the loss of a job, wealth provides support. When a child attends college or is trying to get on his or her feet, a family with wealth can help pay the bills. The large wealth gaps between black families and white families, then, helps explain why black families have such high levels of downward mobility. The recently released Survey of Consumer Finances allows us an opportunity to examine wealth gaps. Matt Bruenig finds that, “The median white family has a net worth of $134,000. The median Hispanic family has a net worth of $14,000. The median black family has a net worth of $11,000.”

Between 2007 and 2010, all racial groups lost large amounts of wealth. However, the effects fell disproportionately on Hispanics and blacks, who saw a 44 percent and 31 percent reduction in wealth, compared to an 11 percent drop for whites. This was due to blacks and Latinos disproportionately receiving subprime loans, both because of outright lending discrimination and housing segregation. A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. They find five main factors responsible for driving the gap, which together explain 66 percent of the growth in inequality. The factors, in order of importance, are number of years of homeownership, household income, unemployment, college education and financial support or inheritance

5. Two-tiered education system

The U.S. increasingly has a two-tiered education system, with students of color trapped in underfunded schools. (Source)  A recent study finds that, “schools with 90 percent or more students of color spend a full $733 less per student per year than schools with 90 percent or more white students.”

Schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. The average white student attends a school that is 72.5 percent white and 8.3 percent black, while the average black student attends a school that is only 27.6 percent white, but is 48.8 percent black. These schools are underfunded and understaffed. In 2001, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit after 18 public schools had “literature classes without books,” computer classes where students discuss what they would do if they had computers, “classes without regular teachers” and classes without enough seats where students stood in the back.

Mazumder finds that student scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (a comprehensive test taken toward the last few years of high school) can help explain differences in upward mobility between blacks and whites. He also finds that completing 16 years of education is a crucial factor in upward mobility. The fact that AFQT scores help predict upward mobility is often used by those who argue that racial differences in intelligence largely explain differences in upward mobility. However, since the AFQT is taken in high school, a better explanation is that differences in AFQT scores represent the combined impacts of poverty, bad schools, wealth gaps, substandard healthcare and segregated employment opportunities working together to reduce long-term mobility.

The idea that there are biological factors reducing upward mobility for African-Americans is both odious and entirely false. As Nathaniel Hendren told me when discussing his research,

We can absolutely reject that theory. In order to believe that theory, you have to believe that the spacial differences across the U.S. are differences in some kind of transmission of genes. Suppose you move from one area to another and you have a kid. Does your kid pick up the mobility characteristics of the place you go to? Now obviously, your genes don’t change when you move. What we find is that kids start to pick up the mobility characteristics of the place they move to, and they do so in the proportion to the amount of time they end up spending in that place. The majority of the differences across places are casual. If people lived in different places, they would have different outcomes.

This all leads to the saddest conclusion — were it not for poorly conceived policies, we could have more upward mobility in the U.S. While conservatives like to point at cultural factors and throw up their hands, a far more productive solution is to redress our massive public policy problems — like the war on drugs and dropout mill schools — that are proven to reduce upward mobility.

The conservative mind-set is ahistorical — we are told to throw away the legacy of slavery and segregation and expect blacks to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, ignoring the structural dynamics keeping them down. Research by Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Matthew Blackwell finds that Southerners who live in counties with higher levels of slave ownership in 1860 express more racial resentment and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. As Marx noted, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”



This article originally appeared on Salon.

Beyond Ferguson: 5 glaring signs that we’re not living in a post-racial society

In the wake of the Ferguson shooting, a recent Pew poll finds that 47 percent of whites believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves,” with regards to the death of Michael Brown, while only 18 percent of African-Americans feel the same. Meanwhile, a similar Pew study found that whites are far less likely to see discrimination in the treatment blacks receive by the education system, the courts and hospitals. Such views are held by many Americans, who believe that “blacks are mostly responsible for their own condition.” Police killings of unarmed blacks are certainly the most visible manifestation of systemic racism, but data show that racism still manifests itself frequently in everyday life.

In America, race determines not just where someone lives and what school he or she attends, it affects the very air we breathe. Although many whites wish to believe we live in a “post-racial” society, race appears not just in overt discrimination but in subtle structural factors. It’s impossible to delineate every way race affects us every day, but a cursory examination of major structural racial problems can give us a feeling for how far we still have to go.

1) Education

Education is an important key to fostering upward mobility and alleviating inequality. However, schools today are becoming more segregated, rather than less segregated. At the peak of integration, 44 percent of black Southern students attended majority white schools. Today, only 23 percent do. This is particularly worrying because recent research by Rucker C. Johnson finds that school desegregation benefited black students, because it “significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status.”

Researchers have increasingly referred to a rise of “apartheid schools,” which are almost entirely non-white. In 2003, one-sixth of all black students were educated in such “apartheid schools.” These districts are underfunded and understaffed, and frequently referred to as “dropout factories.” So students of color are far less likely than their white peers to attend schools with a full range of advanced courses.

As ProPublica documents, more and more schools are squeezing out of court oversight. The result, according to Sam Reardon and his colleagues, is increased racial segregation.


At the college level, the situation is little better. A recent report by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl finds that college education in America consists of “a dual system of racially separate and unequal institutions despite the growing access of minorities to the postsecondary system.” They find that students of color are less likely to end up in the most selective schools than white students with the same qualifications.

2) Wealth

There is a large racial wealth gap between blacks and whites in America, partially driven by income but exacerbated by racially biased housing policies (which will be examined below). A recent research brief by the Institution on Assets and Social Policy finds that the wealth gap between white families and African-Americans has tripled between 1984 and 2009. The recession has only exacerbated the gap, with whites losing 11 percent of their wealth between 2007 and 2010, while blacks lost 31 percent and Hispanics 44 percent.


The housing crash disproportionately affected blacks and Hispanics, who were more likely to receive subprime loans even when compared to whites with similar credit scores. In one instance reported by the New York Timesa loan officer at Wells Fargo said the bank “saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania.” However, even before the recession, disparities inemployment, college education, homeownership and inheritance helped solidify racial wealth gaps. Instead of wealth, more and more Americans, particularly people of color, are burdened with debt.

3) Job Markets

Unemployment is particularly high among African-Americans, the result of both explicit discrimination and occupational segregation.

Occupational segregation, or the delegation of blacks to jobs with low upward mobility and wages, is rife. People of color are primarily affected by practices like just-in-time scheduling, which gives workers little warning before a shift.

Part of the problem is infrastructure and education. People of color are far more likely to rely on public infrastructure, and therefore suffer from cuts to public transportation. Decades of housing segregation have trapped African-Americans in jobless areas with badly understaffed schools. Social networks reinforce the patterns, since most Americans get their jobs through friends and family connections. Outright discrimination plays a role as well: Marianne Bertrand finds that applicants with white-sounding names are 50 percent more likely to receive a call-back than applicants with black-sounding names with the same credentials.

4) Upward Mobility

Possibly the defining American attribute is the dream of upward mobility. Sadly, this tends to be more farce that fact — America lags behind other developed countries in measures of upward mobility. But recent research by Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, shows that levels of upward mobility vary across the country — and is strongly predicted by income inequality and racial segregation. They write: “Income mobility is significantly lower in areas with large African-American populations.” (Whites in the areas also had lower levels of mobility.)

Specifically, they note the importance of segregation, “areas that are more residentially segregated by race and income have lower levels of mobility.”


A recent Pew Research Center study shows that not only do blacks have lower levels of upward mobility; among those that do make it into the middle class, their children are more likely to slide back into poverty. In what may be the most depressing footnote I’ve ever seen in a chart, Pew notes that there are not enough observations of blacks in the fourth and fifth (read: highest) quintiles of income to make observations about upward mobility.



In a recent study, Bhashkar Mazumber finds that out of all children born between the late 1950s and early 1980s, 50 percent of black children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position, while only 26 percent of white children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income scale remained in the same position. He also finds, like Pew, that African-Americans in the middle class are on far more precarious footing than whites: 60 percent of black children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life, but only 36 percent of white children born in the top half of the income distribution fell to the bottom half later in life.

Surprisingly, Mazumber finds that “[w]hile these results are provocative, they stand in contrast to other epochs in which blacks have made steady progress in reducing racial differentials.” While we like to believe we are constantly progressing, these data suggest we may be backsliding with regard to mobility and race.

5) The War on Drugs

The socioeconomic realities discussed above cannot be divorced from the war on drugs: It is a war that is primarily fought against people of color in the country. One in 12 working-age African-American men is incarcerated; and while whites and blacks use and sell drugs at similar rates, African-Americans comprise 74 percent of those imprisoned for drug possession.

The U.S. prison population grew by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005, while the general population grew only 44 percent. According to the Bureau of Justice statistics, around half of federal prisoners’ most serious offense is drug-related. The war on drugs has undermined the legitimacy of law enforcement and eroded their esteem in the eyes of the public. Even before the Ferguson shooting, 70 percent of blacks agreed that, “blacks in their community are treated less fairly than whites” when dealing with the police.

Instead of housing those who have committed violent crimes, U.S. prisons are increasingly teeming with nonviolent offenders. Formerly incarcerated people struggle to find work, and are therefore more likely to turn to crime in the future, creating a vicious and counterproductive cycle. A Pew study finds that the costs of incarceration are often hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages. Even when they are no longer incarcerated, former inmates are often deprived of basic rights, including franchise. Around 13 percent of African-American men have been denied the right to vote.

This is to barely touch on the empirical literature on school punishmentaccess to healthcare, a history of racially biased federal policy and the other deep issues that we face. The most disturbing fact is that in almost all of these areas, we have actually seen previous progress eroded, even while we proclaim ourselves a post-racial society. It’s time to take an honest look at race in America. We probably won’t enjoy it. But we need it.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

Six studies that show everything Republicans believe is wrong

The great 20th-century economist John Maynard Keynes has been widely quoted as saying, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Sadly, in their quest to concentrate economic and political power in the hands of the wealthiest members of society, today’s Republicans have held the opposite position – as the evidence has piled up against them, they continue spreading the same myths. Here are six simple facts about the economy that Republicans just can’t seem to accept:​

1. The Minimum Wage Doesn’t Kill Jobs.

The Republican story on the minimum wage takes the inordinately complex interactions of the market and makes them absurdly simple. Raise the price of labor through a minimum wage, they claim, and employers will hire fewer workers. But that’s not how it works. In the early Nineties, David Card and Alan Krueger found “no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” Since then, international, national and state-level studies have replicated these findings – most recently in a study by three Berkeley economists. Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, has argued that a higher minimum wage would actually “boost the national economy” by giving workers more money to spend on goods and services. The most comprehensive meta-study of the minimum wage examined 64 studies and found “little or no evidence” that a higher minimum wage reduces employment. There is however, evidence that a higher minimum wage lifts people out of poverty. Raise away!

2. The Stimulus Created Millions of Jobs.

In the aftermath of the 2007 recession, President Obama invested in a massive stimulus. The Republican belief that markets are always good and government is always bad led them to argue that diverting resources to the public sector this way would have disastrous results. They were wrong: The stimulus worked, with the most reliable studies finding that it created millions of jobs. The fact that government stimulus works – long denied by Republicans (at least, when Democrats are in office) – is a consensus among economists, with only 4 percent arguing that unemployment would have been lower without the stimulus and only 12 percent arguing that the costs outweigh the benefits.

3. Taxing The Rich Doesn’t Hurt Economic Growth.

Republicans believe that the wealthy are the vehicles of economic growth. Starting with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, they tried cutting taxes on the rich in order to unleash latent economic potential. But even the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein has acknowledged that investment is driven by demand, not supply; if there are viable investments to be made, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments to be made, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two of the eminent economists of inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

In fact, what hurts economic growth most isn’t high taxes – it’s inequality. Two recent IMF papers confirm what Keynesian economists like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand, which in turn stunts growth. To understand why, imagine running a car dealership. Would you prefer if 1 person in your time owned 99% of the wealth and the rest of the population had nothing, or if wealth was distributed more equally, so that more people could purchase your cars?

Every other country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Since there are no economic benefits of inequality, why hasn’t the right conceded the argument? Because it’s based on class interest, not empirical evidence.

4. Global Warming is Caused by Humans.

Even as global warming is linked to more and more extreme weather events, more than 56 percent of Republicans in the current congress deny man-made global warming. In fact, the infamous Luntz memo shows that Republicans have actually created a concerted campaign to undermine the science of global warming. In the leaked memo, Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant, argues that, “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.”

In truth, the science of global warming is not up for debate. James Powell finds that over a one year period, 2,258 articles on global warming were published by 9,136 authors. Of those, only one, from the Herald of the Russian Academy of Sciences, rejected man-made global warming. That one article was likely motivated by the Russian government’s interest in exploiting arctic shale. Another, even more comprehensive study, examining 11,944 studies over a 10-year period, finds that 97 percent of scientists accepted the scientific consensus that man-made global warming is occurring.

This is not an abstract academic debate. The effects of climate change will be devastating, and poor countries will be hurt the worst. We’ve already seen the results. Studies have linked global warming to Hurricane Sandydroughts and other extreme weather events. More importantly, doing nothing will end up being far more expensive than acting now. One study suggests it could wipe out 3.2% of global GDP annually.

5. The Affordable Care Act is Working

President Obama’s centrist healthcare bill was informed by federalism (delegating power to the states) and proven technocratic reforms (like a board to help doctors discern which treatments would be most cost-effective). Republicans, undeterred, decried it as Soviet-style communism based on “death panels” – never mind the fact that the old system, which rationed care based on income, is the one that left tens of thousands of uninsured people to die.

From the beginning, Republicans have predicted disastrous consequences or Obamacare, none of which came true. They predicted that the ACA would add to the deficit; in fact, it will reduce the deficit. They claimed the exchanges would fail to attract the uninsured; they met their targets. They said only old people would sign up; the young came out in the same rates as in Massachusetts. They predicted the ACA would drive up healthcare costs; in fact it is likely holding cost inflation down, although it’s still hard to discern how much of the slowdown was due to the recession. In total, the ACA will ensure that 26 million people have insurance in 2024 who would have been uninsured otherwise.

It’s worth noting that every time the CBO estimates how much Obamacare will cost, the number gets lower. Odd how we’ve never heard Republicans say that.

6. Rich people are no better than the rest of us.

Politicians on the right like to pretend that having money is a sign of hard work and morality – and that not having money is a sign of laziness. This story is contradicted by human experience and many religious traditions (Jesus tells a graphic story about a rich man who refused to help the poor burning in hell). But it’s also contradicted by the facts – more and more rich people are getting their money through inheritances, and science shows that they are no more benevolent than others.

More and more, the wealthy in America are second or third generation. For instance, the Walton family, heirs to the Walmart fortune, own more wealth than the poorest 40 million Americans. Thomas Philippon and Ariell Reshef have found that 30 to 50 percent of the wage difference between the financial sector and the rest of the private sector was due to unearned “rent,” or money they gained through manipulating markets. Josh Bivens and Larry Mishel found the same thing for CEOs – their increased pay hasn’t been correlated to performance.

If rich people haven’t really earned their money, are they at least doing any good with it? Studies find that the wealthy actually give less to charity as a proportion of their income than middle-class Americans, even though they can afford more. Worse, they use their supposed philanthropy to avoid taxes and finance pet projects. Research by Paul Piff finds that the wealthy are far more likely to exhibit narcissistic tendencies. “The rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people,” Piff recently told New York magazine. “It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”

Originally published on The Rolling Stone.