Toward the end of the Civil War, former black slaves were ordered to receive “40 acres and a mule.”* Then, a few months later, Andrew Johnson overturned General Sherman’s Order and most of the United States’ 3.9 million former slaves never received any of the promised wealth.
Now, a century and a half later, researchers at the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the Institute for Policy Studies (pdf) have calculated that it would take African-Americans another 228 years (just seventeen years shorter than the actual span of slavery in the United States) to accumulate the same amount of wealth whites had in 2013 if current policies remain in place. (For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years.)
Think about that!*
Over the past three decades, the average wealth of white families has grown by 84 percent, three times as fast as the rate for African-American families and 1.2 times the growth rate for Latino families. In dollar terms, if the past 30 years were to repeat, whites would see their wealth increase by about $18,000 a year on average, while Latino household wealth would increase an average $2,250 a year and wealth for African-Americans would grow by just $750 annually.
But the problem of wealth is not just a matter of ethnicity or race. Between 1983 and 2013, the top 20 percent of the wealthiest households took 99.4 percent of all wealth gains, with the top 1 percent taking the lion’s share of those gains (40 percent). Meanwhile, the bottom 80 percent of households—white, black, hispanic, and so on—were left with just 0.6 percent of total wealth gain.
And, of course, for the ultra-wealthy group that make up the Forbes 400, things have been even better. Since 1983, this elite group has seen their wealth increase by an average of 736 percent, from $700 million to $5.8 billion. As the authors explain,
the billionaires of the Forbes 400—which includes only two African-Americans and five Latinos—now own more wealth than the entire Black population and one-third of the Latino population, combined. That’s 400 wealthy individuals versus more than 60 million people.
The fact is, wealth-building policies in the United States have long favored the wealthy over typical wage earners, and many of the largest and most powerful of these programs flow through the U.S. tax code. An overwhelming amount of the spending done through the tax code goes to white households at every income level but especially for those (who themselves are overwhelmingly white) at the very top.
Perhaps it’s time then for a new redistributive Order, the contemporary equivalent of 40 acres and a mule for all working-class households in the United States.
*And it’s a conservative estimate, since the analysis is based on average, not median, levels of wealth.