Budgeting for Greater Inequality

This week, while President Obama and House Speaker Boehner gave dueling speeches of blame and recrimination, the Pew Research Center released a report showing the extraordinary increase in the disparity of wealth between whites and nonwhites in the United States. As the New York Times reported:

The study, which used data collected by the Census Bureau, found that the median wealth of Hispanic households fell by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. By contrast, the median wealth of whites fell by just 16 percent over the same period. African Americans saw their wealth drop by 53 percent. Asians also saw a big decline, with household wealth dropping 54 percent.

The biggest reason cited in the report was that non-whites had a much greater percentage of their wealth in real estate where the losses were deepest and the "recovery" the slowest. We also know that unemployment among nonwhites is more widespread, and that it lasts longer than it does among whites. As Al Sharpton pointed out on the HuffingtonPost, since this report only uses data through 2009, the news could be far worse.

This has led to the greatest disparity of wealth between whites and nonwhites since the Census Bureau began collecting this sort of information 25 years ago. White households now have an average wealth that is 20 times greater than black households and 18 times greater than Hispanic households!

This data allows us to understand the stalemate in Washington over raising the debt ceiling from another perspective. The reason we have not yet had an agreement is that the president is insisting in what he calls a "balanced approach" in which families making more than $250,000 a year will have to pay more in taxes. Republicans (and apparently many Democrats), on the other hand, reject this tax increase and call for deeper spending cuts to further shrink the size of government.

Given the Republican reluctance to count the savings that should come from winding down the military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, shrinking the size of government will reduce services to the most needy. This will certainly mean that services for blacks and Hispanics will decrease, and it will have the immediate effect of accelerating the disparities of wealth between these groups and whites. Cutting long-term investment in educational opportunities will deepen the hole for those struggling for the American dream. The refusal to pass just some of the burden of shrinking government services on to the people who can most afford it will further accelerate greater racial inequality in this country.

Of course, there are poor whites, too, and they would also suffer from an effort to balance the budget so as to further advantage the richest members of our society. And there are some wealthy black and Hispanic households that would not be hurt by cuts to programs aimed to protect the most vulnerable.

But the refusal to consider increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans is part of a network of efforts to maintain the trends toward inequality in this country. The report released this week from Pew Research Center reminds us that this is also a defense of the growing disparities between whites on the one hand, and blacks and Hispanics, on the other. The defense of racial and economic privilege under the rhetoric of "taking back our country," or of "living within our means" further undermines our political culture today as it starves future generations of cultural and economic opportunity.