Can ‘Baby Bonds’Eliminate the Racial Wealth Gap
in Putative Post-Racial America?
Darrick Hamilton &William Darity Jr.
Published online: 19 October 2010
#Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010
Abstract Despite an enormous and persistent black-white wealth gap, the ascendant
American narrative is one that proclaims that our society has transcended the racial
divide. The proclamation often is coupled with the claim that remaining disparities are
due primarily to dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks. In such a climate it
appears the only acceptable remedial social policies are those that are facially race
neutral. However, even without the capacity to redistribute assets directly on the basis
of race, our nation still can do so indirectly by judiciously using wealth as the standard
for redistributive measures. We offer a bold progressive child development account
type program that could go a long way towards eliminating the racial wealth gap.
Keywords Racial wealth gap .Post Racial America .Child development accounts
Despite an enormous and persistent black-white wealth gap, the ascendant American
narrative is one that proclaims that our society has transcended the racial divide. The
proclamation often is coupled with the claim that remaining disparities are due primarily to
dysfunctional behavior on the part of blacks. In such a climate it appears the only
acceptable remedial social policies are those that are facially race neutral. However, even
without the capacity to redistribute assets directly on the basis of race, our nation still can
do so indirectly by judiciously using wealth as the standard for redistributive measures.
Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216
African American Economic Summit, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
D. Hamilton (*)
The Milano Graduate School, Urban Policy, Department of Economics, Schwartz Center for
Economic Policy Analysis, The New School, 72 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011, USA
W. Darity Jr.
African and African-American Studies and Economics, Sanford School of Public Policy,
Duke University, Box 90239, Durham, NC 27708-0239, USA
Have we transcended race?
The post-racial ideology represents a shift from some acknowledgement of a social
responsibility for the condition of black America to a position where blacks need to “get
over it”and “take personal responsibility.”Its rhetoric argues that discrimination and other
social barriers are largely things of the past, that blacks now need to stop playing the
“victim role”and recognize their own fault in the persistence of racial inequality.
Moreover, blacks are enjoined to stop making particularistic claims on America and solely
pursue programs of social change designed to reach all Americans. All of these sentiments
were expressed plainly by Barack Obama in his “More Perfect Union”speech in
Philadelphia during the campaign:
For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of
our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full
measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our
particular grievances—for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs—
to the larger aspirations of all Americans—the white woman struggling to break
the glass ceiling, the white man who’s been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed
his family. And it means taking full responsibility for our own lives—by
demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and
reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and
discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism;
they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.
It should be noted that the post-racial perspective typically does acknowledge that
racial discrimination still exist. However, it tends to trivialize and downplay its
significance. For example, during his address at the 100
Anniversary of the
NAACP this past summer, Obama states that:
I understand that there may be a temptation among some to think that
discrimination is no longer a problem in 2009. And I believe that overall, there
probably has never been less discrimination in America than there is today...
But make no mistake: The pain of discrimination is still felt in America. By
African American women paid less for doing the same work as colleagues of a
different color and a different gender. By Latinos made to feel unwelcome in
their own country. By Muslim Americans viewed with the suspicion simply
because they kneel down to praise God. By our gay brothers and sisters, still
taunted, still attacked, still denied rights.
Both implicitly and explicitly, Obama is arguing that there is nothing unique about the
discriminatory barriers faced by black Americans today, and further, whatever
discriminatory barriers that they may face, are at their lowest point ever. However,
Obama does seem to uniquely target his personal responsibility rhetoric to blacks. What is
lacking from his discrimination narrative is the empirical evidence which indicates that
since the mid to late 1970s black-white wage inequality, along with the measured
component of that inequality attributable to discrimination, has remained roughly flat.
Indeed, the election of Barack Obama has given the discourse of post-
racialism added fuel. For example, after the 2008 presidential election, actor Will
208 Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216
Smith proclaimed “...(a)ll of our excuses have been removed. There’snoWhite
man trying to keep you down, because if he were trying to keep you down he
would have [also tried to keep] Obama down”(John-Hall 2009).
The example of the ascendency of blacks to elite positions is the typical
evidence put forth by post-racialists. Common examples before Obama included
the hiring of black CEOs at fortune 500 corporations like AOL Time Warner and
American Express, the appointment of blacks at the highest level of the cabinet,
such as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor, as well as successful
black candidate in many major local and state-wide elections. Post-racialists
attempt to bolster their case by arguing that these examples of black
exceptionalism result from individual or familial acts of perseverance and hard
work. In fact, during his recent address at the 100
Anniversary celebration of
the NAACP, Barack Obama offers himself and the hard work and parenting
behavior of his mother as an example:
…I was raised by a single mom. I didn’tcomefromalotofwealth.Igot
into my share of trouble as a child. My life could have easily taken a turn
for the worse. When I drive through Harlem or I drive through the South
Side of Chicago and I see young men on the corners, I say, there but for
thegraceofGodgoI.They’re no less gifted than me. They’re no less
talented than me.
But I had some breaks. That mother of mine, she gave me love; she pushed
me, she cared about my education; she took no lip; she taught me right from
wrong. Because of her, I had a chance to make the most of my abilities…
What Obama omits in his narrative is the fact that his single mother had a Ph.
D., and the fact that he received an elite education both abroad in Indonesia and
domestically while on scholarship at one of the best private schools in Hawaii.
Instead, his narrative emphasizes the love, motivation and discipline that his
mother instilled, which presumably was lacking in the household of his black
inner city comparisons.
One of the biggest proponents of the post-racial narrative is the highly
acclaimed author, Charles Johnson. In the top story of the Summer 2008 edition
of the American Scholar, entitled “The End of the Black American Narrative,”
Johnson (2008) qualifies himself as a social theorist by describing how fictional
writers concerned with social issues use their craft to put forth narratives
addressing actual social experiences. His own social theory on race begins with
a tale of exploitation and victimization in his award winning novel, Middle
Passage. But, as a result of the successes of the civil rights movement, including
the Civil Rights Acts, the Voting Rights Acts, and the growth of the middle class,
he argues that that narrative has changed—we are now in a post-racial American
and that the narrative of black victimization is over. He asserts that it “…is no
longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and
disenfranchisement, a curse and condemnation, a destiny based on color in which
the meaning of one’s life is thinghood, created even before one is born.”But how
does the new and improved Charles Johnson narrative explain the racial wealth
gap, and the fact that this so called black middle class dramatically shrinks when
wealth is used as the indicator of class position?
Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216 209209
The role of the racial wealth gap in post-racial America
Wealth is a paramount indicator of social well being. Wealthier families are far better
positioned to finance elite independent school and college education, access capital to start
a business, finance expensive medical procedures, reside in higher amenity neighbor-
hoods, lower health hazards, etc.; exert political influence through campaign financing;
purchase better counsel if confronted with the legal system, leave a bequest, and/or
withstand financial hardship resulting from any number of emergencies,.
Wealth also is a dramatic indicator of black-white inequality. Using the 2002
Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) data, Kochhar (2004) estimates
a close to $90,000 median household net worth for white families in comparison to a
meager $8000 and $6000 net worth for Latino and black households, respectively.
The disparity is so pronounced that the median Latino and black household would
have to save 100% of their income for at least three consecutive years to close the
gap. Furthermore, 85% of black and Latino households have a net worth below the
median white household. Regardless of age, household structure, education,
occupation or income, black households typically have less than a quarter of the
wealth of otherwise comparable white households.
How can the post-racial discourse that race is no longer a defining feature of one’slife
chances, particularly for black families that have escaped concentrated poverty in inner-
city ghettos reconcile the enormous, persistent racial wealth gap. Moreover, the racial
wealth gap spans the demographics of age, education, marital status and income. The
smallest racial disparity exists for families in the third quartile of the racial income
distribution where the typical black family has 38% of the wealth of the typical white
family, whereas in the bottom income quartile (the group which contains the working
poor) is characterized by black families having a mere 2% of the wealth of the typical
white family in the same quartile. Perhaps even more disturbing the median wealth of
black families whose head graduated from college is less than the median wealth of white
families whose head dropped out of high school (Gittleman and Wolff 2004).
What are the conventional explanations of this disparity?
There are three main mechanisms that have been put forth to explain the racial wealth gap
consistent with the Obama-Johnson post-racial narrative. The first is the notion that in
search of immediate gratification blacks are less frugal when it comes to savings. But it has
not historically been the case, nor is it now the case, that blacks are more profligate than
whites. Economists ranging from Milton Friedman to Marjorie Galenson to the recently
deceased founder of the Caucus of Black Economists, Marcus Alexis, found that, after
accounting for household income, blacks have a slightly higher savings rate than whites.
More recently, Gittleman and Wolff (2004) also found blacks have a slight savings rate
Bucks et al. (2009) uses the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finance (SCF) and estimates 16 percent ratio of
non-white ($27,800) to white ($170,000) median household wealth. Although the SCF figures are more
current, because the study design surveyed a greater proportion of affluent households, the wealth statistics
are substantially higher for both groups than the earlier SIPP estimates. Further, as a result of sample size
issues related to oversampling affluent households, blacks and Latinos are not disaggregated from other
non-white groups in the results presented by Bucks et al. (2009).
210 Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216
edge over whites, again after adjusting for household income. Furthermore, the mild black
savings rate advantage at most income levels is actually indicative of even greater black
frugality because blacks who attain higher incomes typically have a greater array of kin
and family obligations in assisting low-income relatives than whites, further reducing their
resources to save (Chiteji and Hamilton 2002; and Heflin and Pattillo 2000).
There is, however, a recent study by Ariel/Hewitt which finds that, relative to whites,
black employees at a sample of 57 large companies from a variety of industries have lower
participation and contribution rates to company sponsored 401(K) plans even after
controlling for salary, job tenure and age. Unfortunately, it is not clear from the study how
these attributes were controlled.
For example, the study includes a table that compares
participation rates across racial groups at various income brackets. The lowest
participation rate difference, one percentage point (92 versus 91%), occurs in the
highest income bracket (those earning above $120,000), while the greatest participation
rate difference, six percentage points (56 versus 50%), occurs in the lowest income
bracket (those earning below $30,000). Yet, the study finds that blacks are 7% less likely
to participate after controlling for salary, age and job tenure. This would suggest an
unlikely scenario that blacks are better positioned in terms of salary within the defined
income brackets and/or have longer job tenure and are older on average.
In addition, unlike the Gittleman and Wolff study, the Ariel/Hewitt study
examines individuals rather than household savings. Given that savings decisions
are often made at the household level, individual income controls are likely to be
inadequate when trying to determine savings rate behavior. Given the racial marriage
gap, it is likely that the black observations in their study had lower household
income levels to save, which would only be partially captured by individual salary
levels. Moreover, 60% of the black sample in the Ariel/Hewitt study consists of
females, while the comparable number for whites is 48%.
The second explanation that supports the post-racial narrative is the claim that
inferior black asset management has resulted in lower portfolio returns. However,
the Gittleman and Wolff (2004) study based on data before the subprime and
mortgage market crisis, finds no significant racial differences in asset appreciation
rates for families with positive assets. This is illustrative of additional evidence of
the post-racial mythology.
In addition to being more profligate and possessing low financial acumen, popular
discourse also attributes the racial wealth gap to a deficient entrepreneurial spirit on
the part of blacks. The discourse tends to focus on successful entrepreneurial
immigrants as examples of “model minorities”that blacks should immolate.
Although, It is the case that Asian Immigrants in general have substantially more
business assets than blacks, careful examination by Tim Bates (1997); Darity (2005);
Darity and Hamilton 2009), Bogan and Darity (2008), and Masao Suzuki attribute this
advantage to higher levels initial financial capital, and selectivity associated with
immigration, rather than some group based “model minority”entrepreneurial behavioral.
Migration is not a random occurrence, and leads to advantages resulting from
selection. These selectivity advantages are exhibited by three comparisons. First,
entrepreneurially successful immigrant groups enjoy initial financial and human
The actual methods and empirical results of the control exercise are not included in the paper, and
multiple attempt were made to solicit this information, but our requests were not fulfilled.
Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216 211211
capital advantages over their non-migrating countrymen. Second, these selective
immigrants are also more likely to engage in entrepreneurial activity than their U.S.
born ancestral linked peers, who presumably have similar cultural orientations.
Finally, there are varying degrees of success amongst Asian immigrant groups, and
this success is correlated with group level financial and human capital upon U.S.
Indeed financial capital is a key ingredient to start a successful business. Seventy-seven
percent of firms with employees and 59% of sole proprietors report that using personal or
family assets to start their business. Yet, from 1979 to 1987, 29% of black firms started
with no financial capital, whereas only 16% of Asian Immigrant firms were launched with
no financial capital. This figure is even substantially lower than the white rate of 23%.
The result is a very low ownership of business assets on the part of blacks. In
2002, blacks made up about 12% of the population, less than 5% of non-publicly
traded firms were black owned and these firms collectively received less than 1% of
total business receipts. In contrast, non-Latino whites represented about 68% of the
population, owned about 83% of all firms, and 93% of non-publically traded
So, what explains the racial wealth gap?
Careful economic studies actually demonstrate that inheritances, bequests and intra-
family transfers account for more of the racial wealth gap than any other
demographic and socioeconomic indicators including education, income and
household structure (see for example, Blau and Graham 1990; Menchik and
Jianakoplos 1997; Gittleman and Wolff 2004). These intra-familial transfers, the
primary source of wealth for most Americans with positive net worth, are transfers
of blatant non-merit resources. Why do blacks have vastly less resources to transfer
to the next generation?
Apart from the national failure to endow black ex-slaves with the promised forty
acres and a mule after the Civil War, blacks were deprived systematically of
property, especially land, accumulated between 1880 and 1910 by government
complicity, fraud, and seizures by white terrorists. During the first three decades of
the twentieth century prosperous black communities and the associated property
literally was destroyed by white rioters in communities ranging from Wilmington,
North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma (Darity and Frank 2003; Darity 2008). The
historical use of restrictive covenants, redlining, and general housing and lending
discrimination were also factors that inhibited blacks from accumulating wealth
(Oliver and Shapiro 2006; and Katznelson 2005). Furthermore, Oliver and Shapiro
and Katznelson in separate studies document exclusion of blacks from post-
depression and World War II public policy which are largely responsible for the asset
development of an American middle class.
The biased treatment of blacks in asset markets is not limited to the past. For
example, a recent report (February 2009) on mortgage lending and race conducted
by the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota finds that black
Twin City residents in the highest earning categories (above $150,000) were twice as
likely to be denied a home loan than whites in the lowest earning category (below
212 Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216
$40,000). It is also the case that among those fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to
actually get a loan, high earning blacks were more than three times as likely to be
offered a subprime loan than low earning whites.
It is also noteworthy that subprime loans are excluded from the Obama
administrations “modified loan”program. Indeed, Margaret Kimberly, an editor for
the Black Agenda Report, describes the current foreclosure crisis as a new form of
wealth transfer from black Americans.
Indeed, there is evidence that recessions disproportionately affect blacks and
Latinos. During an earlier recession (1999–2001), data presented by Kochhar (2004)
reveals that median household wealth fell by 27% each for Latinos and blacks, while
it grew by 2% for whites. We suspect that this current recession will lead to an even
greater widening of an already wide wealth gap. Although, whites are considerably
more likely than blacks to own their home, among blacks with positive net worth the
share of black wealth attributable to housing is nearly twice as large as the white
share (Gittleman and Wolff 2004). Coupled with the fact that blacks were far more
likely to be steered toward subprime loans in discriminatory credit markets, the
foreclosure crisis is bound to have a more deleterious effect on black than white wealth.
In addition, Tamara Nopper, a recent PhD. in sociology documents that as a result
of a policy shift in the U.S. Small Business Administration since 1980, the total
share of SBA loans and the share of the total dollar amount of these loans offered to
black borrowers declined dramatically. She attributes part of this decline to
administrative movements away from specific targets to black borrowers to a more
aggregate targeting that includes women and all minority groups. The result and
been a shift from black to other minorities, particularly Asians.
Of all the SBA loans distributed to minorities in 1980, roughly 40% of the
loans and 40% of the total dollar amount of these loans were directed to black
borrowers. In contrast less than 20% were distributed to Asians. However, by
2006, Asian borrowers received 43% of all minority loans and 64% of the total
dollar amount, while the comparable figures for black borrowers were 21 and
Perhaps part of this growth in lending towards Asians can be explained by their
increase in population share. This is not the case for non-Latino whites. Despite a
precipitous decline in their population share since 1980, the share of SBA loans
distributed to them has remained fixed around 70%.
Nopper (2010) also attributes the relative decline in black lending to a Small
Business Administration’s policy shift from direct lending to the use of banks as
intermediaries via loan guarantees. Black borrowers conceivably had better access to
finance as a result of more relaxed SBA collateral and credit requirements, which, even
with loan guarantees, may not have been offered by commercial lenders. Also, as is
documented above, there is long established history of racial bias in commercial lending.
Another issue with the use of bank intermediaries is the relative shortage of black
banks. In a report produced at the end of 2008, the FDIC identified a total of 44
black banks with $7.5 billion in assets and 96 Asian and Pacific Islander banks with
a total of $53 billion in assets. Since ethnic banks disproportionately service co-
ethnic borrowers and co-ethnic communities, the given underrepresentation of black
banks, and reliance of banks to identify borrowers and distribute loans, creates a
structural impediment to black business creation and growth.
Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216 213213
Policies: what can the public sector do?
Given the importance of intergenerational transfers of wealth and past and
present barriers preventing black wealth accumulation, private action and market
forces alone cannot close an unjust racial wealth gap.—public sector intervention
is necessary. Does the public sector have the resources to tackle the racial wealth
gap? The answer must be a resounding yes. The federal government’s ability to
raise $70 billion for TARP, along with an additional $2.5 trillion to aid the ailing
financial system by April 2009 (see February 4, 2009 New York Times report) is
indicative of the government’s ability to raise and leverage substantial sums of
In addition, a report by the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED 2004)
estimates that, even before the current financial crises, the federal government
allocated $335 billion of its 2003 budget in the form of tax subsidies and savings to
promote asset development policies. This figure, which is 15 times higher than what
was spent on education, does not include subsidies or tax breaks given to
corporations nor funds from state and local level policies.
At issue is not the amount that was allocated, but to whom the allocation was
distributed. The top 1% of earners, those typically earning over $1 million dollars a
year, received about one-third of the entire allocation, while the bottom 60% of
earners received only 5%. Furthermore, individuals in the bottom 20% typically
received a measly $5 benefit from these policies. Perhaps if the federal asset
promotion budget where allocated in a more progressive manner, federal policies
could be transformative for low income Americans (see Sherraden 1991, for a
discussion on Assets and the Poor).
We are not optimistic about the public will to directly address the racial wealth
gap. Indeed, the surge in the post-racial perspective has moved the public sentiment
strongly away from race specific social policies. But all is not lost. Since the
distributions of white and non-white wealth are so disparate—85% of black families
have wealth holdings below the median white family—wealth can be an effective
non-race based instrument to eliminate racial inequality. A shift from an income
based means test to a wealth based means test for transfer programs. Policies with
eligibility based on net worth at some level below the national median would reach a
large proportion of black households and could go a long way towards closing the
racial wealth gap, especially if they include asset building dimensions
Modern electronic recording of financial data facilitates our ability to identify
financial assets. Financial monitoring advances made by IRS and law enforcement
agencies serve as examples of the public sector’s ability to measure financial assets.
Further, many localities are already engaged in home value assessments. Electronic
home appraisals based on market valuations of area home sales, provide another
example to measure individual assets holdings. To avoid savings crowd out the
transfer program could be structured in a manner similar to the Earned Income Tax
Credit (EITC) program, which uses a phase out schedule to avoid work
disincentives. Finally, there may be a concern that the program may influence the
timing in which parents, grandparents or other relatives (or friends) might make
transfers to their off-springs so that the children of these off-springs can increase the
federal bond support in which they qualify. In order to address this concern, the
214 Rev Black Polit Econ (2010) 37:207–216
federal government could tax future inheritance and bequests to bond recipients to
avoid the moral hazard from these family transfers.
Over the past 20 years “demonstration”programs designed to develop the asset
capacity of the poor have emerged. Two of the most notable are the American Dream
Demonstration (ADD) which uses Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) to
create match incentives for the poor to save, and the Savings for Education,
Entrepreneurship, and Down-payment (SEED) initiative which establishes Children’s
Development Accounts (CDA) (what Manny Marable refers to as “Baby Bonds”)to
create endowed trusts for children at birth. The original intent was for these asset
building strategies to be implemented universally in a progressive manner; however,
thus far, they have only served as “demonstrations”(Sherraden 2009).
The United Kingdom has moved beyond the demonstration stage. Beginning in
2005, every newborn in the UK receives a trust ranging from 250 to 500 pounds
depending on familial resources. Every year since 2004 the American Savings for
Personal Investment Retirement and Education (ASPIRE) is introduced in congress to
established universal CDAs in the U.S. (see Sherraden 2009 for more details). Since the
nation’s black president eschews race specific policies, perhaps a strongly amended
ASPIRE bill designed to progressively distribute funds based on familial net worth can
be the policy that enables him to “bind…[black America’s] grievances …to the larger
aspirations of all Americans.”
We envision a “baby bond”plan of much greater scale and magnitude—progressively
rising to $50,000 or $60,000 for children in families in the lowest wealth quartile and
accessible once the child turns 18 years of age. These individual trusts could grow in
federally managed investment accounts with guarantees of at least 1.5–2% annual growth
rates. We also would determine eligibility for such a program based upon the net worth
position of the child’s family rather than their income, e.g. all children whose families fell
below the national median for wealth would receive “baby bonds.”
Based on a crude estimate, the budget for the program would be less than 10% of
the non-war spending budget for the Department of Defense. There are about 4
million babies born each year in the US. If the average trust is set at $20,000 per
child and three-quarters of all newborns (3 million) are made eligible for the
program, the baby bond program would cost about $60 billion per annum. Although
this simple estimate does not incorporate costs resulting from increased fertility
incentives, it also does not incorporate savings resulting from reduction in other
federal transfer programs associated with better-resourced young adults.
Rather than a race-neutral America, the ideal should be a race-fair America. For that to
occur the transmission of racial economic advantage or disadvantage across generations
would have to cease. Indeed, in keeping with the most comprehensive norms of a post-
racial society, there should be no transmission of racial economic advantage or
disadvantage across generations for anyone. Public provision of a substantial trust fund
for newborns from families that are wealth-poor would go a long way toward achieving
the ideal. Until then, the historic election of the first self-identified black president
merely will buy the nation symbolic racial reconciliation on the cheap.
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