Income vs. Wealth: How Privilege Is Passed Down from Generation to Generation

Not too long ago, I got an angry e-mail from someone in the town where I grew up.

The author of the e-mail is someone who knows my parents pretty well, and he had somehow stumbled across something I had written about privilege.

“How disrespectful can you be!? It’s like your spitting in the face of everything your parents have worked for,” he wrote. “Writing about this White privilege makes it look like your father, one of the harder working men I know, just had everything handed to him. You know that’s not the case!”

I did my best to respond by explaining that privilege doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve had everything handed to you, and I know that my father has worked hard. To say that we have privilege doesn’t discredit any of his hard work. It simply puts that hard work in context.

I recently heard privilege described as a tailwind,” taking your effort and energy and propelling you further forward than those who must fly against the winds of our society’s constructs of power and privilege.

My father didn’t grow up with incredible wealth privilege. He is the son of a truck driver and stay-at-home mom who also worked at a local school cafeteria to earn extra cash. My grandfather grew up in the “holler” in West Virginia in an area well familiar with intergenerational poverty.

Part of what set our family apart, though, was our ownership of land.

Similarly, on my mom’s side of the family, go back a few generations and you’ll find some poor, hardworking farmers from Ireland and Belgium who settled on stolen indigenous land in South Dakota. Again, they were able to buy a plot of land upon which they could start to build their familial wealth legacy.

Fast forward a few generations, and I am the son of a doctor and a nurse.

Wealth and the Context of History

There are really a few ways to look at my family’s history.

Some might say that it’s the perfect example of “The American Dream,” as defined by the ability of a people to build something (read: wealth) for themselves that is passed down to ensure the next generation’s life is a little better than the last.

Others might note that my family’s story perfectly illustrates the trappings of privilege.

Sure, my family gave up most of our cultural identity to become White in the United States, but doing so gave us access to a system that privileged us in countless ways.

Simply put, we traded culture for a tailwind.

After all, one of the key markers of access to wealth in the United States for much of its history has been the ability to own land. There’s a reason that for a good, long while in this country, a man couldn’t vote unless he owned land, and you couldn’t own land unless you were White and Christian.

And land-ownership has been systematically denied to those not considered “White” (through the ever-changing construction of Whiteness) for most if not all of this country’s history.

From the Land Grant Acts to the Homesteading Acts to redlining policies toWhite flight, we see how owning land, but particularly land considered “desirable” or worthy (whether because of access to resources or proximity to jobs or simply status) allows for wealth mobility.

And this access to wealth mobility is relates directly to intersectional identity politics.

This does not mean that all White people are wealthy or that poor White folks somehow are failures for not better working the system that privileges us.

It simply means that the limited access to wealth that has always been a staple in this country has just been more limited for people of Color and women and disabled/differently-abled people and non-Christians and really anyone who isn’t part of the smaller, privileged few that are most granted access to wealth in this country.

Read the rest at Everyday Feminism.


The Racialized Wealth Gap

For this week’s post, I wanted to highlight a study done by researchers at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy that was released recently.

The study found that the wealth disparity between White and Black households has more than quadrupled, regardless of whether a family (White or Black) is making a lot of money or a little bit of money.  To understand the study, it’s important to understand the difference between wealth and income.  Wealth refers to the total net assets to which a person has access (owning a house, a car, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, retirement accounts, etc).  Income, on the other hand, is the amount of money that someone is making at any given time.

As such, the study found that the average White family has 18 times the wealth of the average Hispanic family and 20 times the wealth of the average Black family.  This has been a problem for a while (as in 1995, White families had 7x the wealth of Black or Hispanic families), but the current economic crisis has brought the wealth gap to historic inequality.

That kind of disparity was hard for me to understand until I saw it in dollar amounts.  The median white household today has a net wealth of approximately $113,000, while the median Hispanic family has a net wealth of $6,325 and the median Black family has a net wealth of $5,667.

Check out a great video from CBS News that highlights the problem.

Now the frustrating part of this study is that it should be a call to reform in the United States, a call for us to understand the root causes of this problem and look for just and equitable policies that can change this reality.

However, we list in a society that says that regardless of what racist or sexist policies exist, regardless of what weight history places on the current generation, or regardless of what sociological patterns exist, we live in a society of rugged individualists.  If your net worth is low, it must be your fault.  Thus, much of the commentary and commenting being done across the internet in response to this startling study has been placing blame on Black and Hispanic families for (among other things) not saving enough or for being too lazy (despite the fact that white and black families save at the same rates).

However, we do not live in isolation.  We are a product of our history, and when one group of people has a 600 year jump on wealth accumulation (or even a 10 year jump), that makes for some drastic inequality, for wealth (not income) is what is passed from generation to generation.

For those who doubt the concept of white privilege, this is yet another example of the ways in which we, as white people, have a leg up.  Our families have had, for the most part, significantly longer than families of color to accumulate wealth and invest our wealth in areas that are less liquid (in bonds as opposed to the housing market).  As such, we have easier access to the ever-more-expensive world of college education, and we have more stability and safety during times of economic upheaval.  Even our tax policy today is designed to benefit white folks, for our lowest tax rates are on investment or capital gains, which, according to this study, are primarily a tool of white wealth.

In this time of calls for economic reform, there is indeed a need for economic reform, reform that helps those who have been historically and are currently oppressed and discriminated against to accrue wealth in ways that will lead to a more just nation.