For those of you who may not have the opportunity to tune into Stephen Henderson’s radio program Detroit Today on NPR, it might be useful to have a short summary of the January 9 discussion of the “wealth gap” from that program.
Tax lawyers have traditionally talked of the “tax gap”1 and frequently mentioned the growing “income gap” between the top 1% of the income distribution and the remaining 99%, but the “wealth gap”2 discussion among tax lawyers, tax policy thinkers, economic analysts and indeed progressive legislators about the relative net assets of different segments of the population has become increasingly important as people have recognized the trend of increasing wealth for the top 0.1% in the US and stagnating wealth for most of the US population. The wealth gap is even more significant when race/ethnicity is taken into account: the 400 wealthiest families in 2015 owned as much as the country’s entire African-American population plus 1/3 of the Latino population.4 The median white household in 2011 had about $111 thousand in wealth, while the median black household had $7 thousand and the median Latino household had $8 thousand, with the impact of slavery and post-WWII homeownership policies being the underlying source of most of the disparities.3 See also How Ameria’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2019. The generational wealth gap is also worrisome: older Americans’ wealth grew between 1989 and 2013 but all other age groups had their wealth decline.3 The gender wealth gap underlies the power distinction that lies at the bottom of the MeToo movement: women earn less than men for the same work at the same level, and they save less and are more likely to live in poverty in old age.
That means that children in this country born to families in the top 10% of the wealth distribution have enormous advantages from birth: they are essentially guaranteed the best medical, educational, and institutional support imaginable, with every opportunity for learning and advancement laid before them. Their parents can afford to ensure they are able to get into top colleges (e.g., Harvard alumni preferences for their children), meet the “right” people for success in their preferred field (the “connections” that wealthy families build), take a preferred non-paying internship in another city with family funds supporting living expenses and more, all the way up the ladders of success. Children born into families in the bottom half of the wealth distribution face a struggle at every point along that ladder: schools that are inadequately funded after decades of Republican concentration on assessment and hurdles rather than support and educational opportunities; lack of exposure to different possibilities and the people who can open doors into those possibilities; lack of funding to make it possible to accept an opportunity when it presents itself.