The wealth gaps between whites and minorities in the United States have grown to their widest levels since the U.S. government began tabulating them a quarter-century ago. The recession and uneven recovery have erased decades of minority gains, leaving whites on average with 20 times the net worth of blacks and 18 times that of Hispanics, according to an analysis of new Census data.
The analysis shows the racial and ethnic impact of the recent economic meltdown, which ravaged housing values and sent unemployment soaring. It also offers the most direct government evidence yet of the stark wealth divide, a disparity between predominantly younger minorities whose main asset is their home and older whites who are more likely to have 401(k) retirement accounts or other stock holdings.
"I am afraid that this pushes us back to what the Kerner Commission characterized as 'two societies, separate and unequal,'" said Roderick Harrison, a former chief of racial statistics at the Census Bureau, referring to the 1960s presidential commission that examined U.S. race relations. "The great difference is that the second society has now become both black and Hispanic."
The median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared to $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks, according to the analysis released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center. Those ratios, roughly 20 to 1 for blacks and 18 to 1 for Hispanics, far exceed the low mark of 7 to 1 for both groups reached in 1995, when the nation's economic expansion lifted many low-income groups to the middle class.
The white-black wealth gap also is the widest since census began tracking such data in 1984, when the ratio was roughly 12 to 1.
"What's pushing the wealth of whites is the rebound in the stock market and corporate savings, while younger Hispanics and African-Americans who bought homes in the last decade, because that was the American dream, are seeing big declines," said Timothy Smeeding, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who specializes in income inequality.
Stock holdings play an important role in the economic well-being of white households. Stock funds, IRA and Keogh accounts as well as 401(k) and savings accounts were responsible for 28 percent of whites' net worth, compared with 19 percent for blacks and 15 percent for Hispanics.
"There's a good chance the wealth gap will widen further," Smeeding said, citing the stalled housing market. "What we need to do is help lower-income people move up."
According to the Pew study, the housing boom of the early to mid 2000s particularly boosted the wealth of Hispanics, who were disproportionately employed in the thriving construction industry. Hispanics also were more likely to live and buy homes in states such as California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were in the forefront of the real estate bubble, enjoying early gains in home values.
Those gains quickly shriveled in the housing collapse. After reaching a median wealth of $18,359 in 2005, the wealth of Hispanics — who had derived nearly two-thirds of their net worth from home equity — declined by 66 percent by 2009. Among blacks, who now have the highest unemployment rate at 16.2 percent, their household wealth fell 53 percent from $12,124 to $5,677.
In contrast, the median household wealth of whites dipped a modest 16 percent from $134,992 to $113,149, cushioned in part by a stock market recovery that began in mid-2009.
"The findings are a reminder, if one was needed, of what a large share of blacks and Hispanics live on the economic margins," said Paul Taylor, director of Pew Social & Demographic Trends. "When the economy tanked, they're the groups that took the heaviest blows."
The latest data come as President Barack Obama and congressional leaders face an Aug. 2 deadline to figure out a deal to cut deficits and raise the debt ceiling or risk seeing the U.S. default on its financial obligations. Democrats and Republicans have been wrangling over proposals that could cut trillions of dollars from programs such as the Medicare health plan, mainly for older Americans, and the government's retirement plan, Social Security; they also are divided over whether to bring in new tax revenue, such as by closing corporate tax loopholes or increasing taxes for the wealthy.
In a White House meeting last week, the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and other black groups urged Obama to resist deep cuts such as in housing assistance or safety net programs including Social Security and Medicaid, a medical program mainly for the poor and uninsured, saying it would disproportionately hurt urban areas with some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment. The U.S. poverty rate currently stands at 14.3 percent, with the ranks of the working-age poor at the highest level since the 1960s. Some analysts believe the poverty rate will climb higher when new figures are released in September.
"Typically in recessions, minorities suffer from being last hired and first fired. They are likely to lose jobs more rapidly at the beginning of the recession, and are far slower to gain jobs as the economy recovers," said Harrison, who is now a sociologist at Howard University. "One suspects that blacks who lost jobs in the recession, or who have tried to help family members or relatives who did, have now spent whatever savings or other cashable assets they had."
• About 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Hispanic households had zero or negative net worth in 2009, compared with 15 percent of white households. In 2005, the comparable shares were 29 percent for blacks, 23 percent for Hispanics and 11 percent for whites.
• Asians lost their top ranking to whites in median household wealth, dropping from $168,103 in 2005 to $78,066 in 2009. Similar to Hispanics, many Asians were concentrated in states like California that were hit hard by the housing downturn. More recent arrivals of new Asian immigrants, who tend to be poor, also pushed down their median wealth.
• Across all race and ethnic groups, the wealth gap between rich and poor widened. The share of wealth held by the top 10 percent of U.S. households increased from 49 percent in 2005 to 56 percent in 2009. The threshold for entry into the wealthiest top 10 percent, however, dipped lower: from $646,327 in 2005 to $598,435.
The numbers are based on the Census Bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation, which sampled more than 36,000 households on wealth from September-December 2009. Census first began publishing wealth data from this survey, broken down by race and ethnicity, in 1984.
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