The yawning wealth gap

We all know that income inequality has been widening in recent decades. Less appreciated yet even more disturbing over the long run is increasing wealth inequality. Wealth plays a large role in life experiences and opportunities, from education to neighborhood. The latest report from Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends is bleak on the wealth front: Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between Whites, Blacks and Hispanics.

The typical white household in 2009 had $113,149 in wealth (assets minus debts), according to the report. The typical black household had $5,677 in wealth and the comparable Hispanic household $6,325.

In other words, the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households.

These lopsided wealth ratios are the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.

The primary culprit behind recent surge in wealth inequality is the collapse of the housing market. Homes are a much larger share of net worth for minorities and the subprime debacle was concentrated in minority neighborhoods.

For instance, from 2005 to 2009 the real wealth of the median Hispanic household plunged by 66% and by 53% percent for blacks, the report said. Over the same time period the wealth drop for white families was 16%.

Washington should be far more concerned about increasing income and wealth inequality than sinking into fiscal irresponsbility over the debt limit. The two inequalities are feeding off and reinforcing one another. It means falling equality of opportunity for more and more Americans, especially their children. That's bad economically and morally.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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