In popular terms, “the middle class” has long been defined in a nebulous fashion, the sole prerequisite for joining the group being a desire to see oneself in it. Empirically in the social sciences, however, the bounds of “the middle class” have commonly been demarcated with respect to income, occupational status, and/or educational attainment.
In this paper, the authors argue that wealth is the best criterion for determining and characterizing the middle class, especially given its ability to recognize and underscore the great disparities on display across America. Moreover, by this metric of wealth, one could argue that the Black “middle class” cannot be restored, as it was never constructed in the first place.
Blacks hold less than 3% of the nation’s wealth despite constituting 14% of the nation’s population. Extinguishing the racial wealth gap would necessitate having Blacks own at least 14% of the nation’s wealth.
Black-White wealth inequality is not a matter of income poverty. It spans Black Americans at all income levels; antipoverty policies that solely benefit low income populations will do little to close the racial wealth gap.
Black households in the third (middle) quintile of the income distribution have wealth levels similar to those of the poorest White households.
In the middle quintiles (quintiles two, three, and four), the Black–White ratios of median levels of income are in excess of 55%, but the Black–White ratios of median wealth are less than 20%.
97% of White wealth is held by households with a net worth above the White median ($171,000). Thus, any policy seeking to close the racial gap at the median does not account the most significant driver of racial wealth inequality.
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University