As Congress and the White House wrestle whether to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans, a new analysis of Census data shows that the wealth gaps between whites and blacks and Hispanics widened dramatically during the recession.
The analysis by the Pew Research Center, released on Tuesday, found that from 2005 to 2009, inflation-adjusted median wealth fell 66 percent among Hispanic households and 53 percent among black households, compared with a 16 percent decline among white households.
Those declines increased the wealth gap between white and minority households to the largest since the census began collecting such data in 1984. The ratio of wealth for whites to blacks, for instance, is now roughly 20 to 1, compared to 12 to 1 in the first survey 25 years ago and 7 to 1 in 1995, when a booming economy lifted many low-income Americans into the middle class.
The wealth ratio for whites to Hispanics was 18 to 1 in 2009, also up from 7 to 1 in 1995, the Pew analysis found.
The declines from the recession left the median black household with $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts, where assets include items like a car, a home, savings, retirement funds, etc.) and the typical Hispanic household with $6,325. White households, by comparison, had $113,149, the study found.
Sliced another way, the data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), showed that 35 percent of black households and 31 percent of Hispanic households had zero or negative net worth in 2009. The comparable rate for white households was 15 percent.
The SIPP income questionnaire is considered to provide the most comprehensive snapshot of household wealth by race and ethnicity.
The Pew analysis said the housing crisis was largely to blame for the widening gulf. The median level of home equity held by Hispanic homeowners declined by half from 2005 to 2009, from $99,983 to $49,145 it found. By comparison, white homeowners saw their median equity decline from $115,364 in 2005 to $95,000 in 2009. Black homeowners’ median equity fell from $76,910 to $59,000 over the same period.
The study said the sharper decline among Hispanics happened because a large share of Hispanics live in California, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which were among the states hardest hit by the housing crisis.
Other studies have noted that blacks and Hispanics lost so much more home equity because they were far more likely to be sold a high-cost, sub-prime loan, regardless of their credit histories. Those mortgages now have the highest foreclosure rates.
It also noted that because whites are more heavily invested in the recovering stock market than blacks or Hispanics, the former had recovered a higher percentage of the wealth lost to the recession.
National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial called the report a “wake-up call” that minority communities need more investment in long-term job creation.
"A paramount issue for this nation for the 21st century is to ensure the narrowing and closing of the racial wealth gap," Morial told the Associated Press on Tuesday, a day before the National Urban League opens its annual convention in Boston. "It has deep social implications. It has deep political implications."
In Washington, the wealth gap has been a major point of friction in talks about raising the debt ceiling and putting the nation on sounder fiscal footing. President Barack Obama and Democrats have sought a variety of ways to increase revenue, all aimed at those in the upper income bracket.
The president has proposed closing loopholes in the tax code, such as breaks for owners of private jets and for oil companies as well as higher income tax rates on wealthier individuals and families. Republicans have made resistance to any tax increases a focal point in the debate, arguing that raising taxes in a recession is an impediment to creating jobs. Neither plan currently under consideration contains any tax increases.