Falling behind: The Black-White Wealth Gap in Life Course and Intergenerational Perspective

Alexandra Killewald, Harvard University
Brielle Bryan, Harvard University

The black-white wealth gap in the United States is vast and increases with age. Prior research has typically taken a static approach, predicting current wealth with current individual traits or measures of social origins. This approach is ill-suited to wealth, which reflects the lifetime accumulation of resources and is a cumulative advantage process. Instead, we adopt a life-course perspective, examining the evolution of wealth across individuals’ lives. We hypothesize that whites’ early advantages, including higher educational attainment, more privileged social origins, and more consistent wage-earning, not only advantage young adult whites compared to their black peers, but place them on a trajectory of compounding advantage throughout their lives. Thus, social origins and early life outcomes may actually become more important determinants of racial disparities in wealth the farther into the past they recede. We evaluate these hypotheses using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 and random-growth models.

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Presented in Session 215: Race, Gender, and Nativity Inequalities in Economic Outcomes