Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology

Population Research Discovery Seminars

Falling Behind: The Black-White Wealth Gap in Life Course Perspective

Alexandra (Sasha) Killewald, Department of Sociology, Harvard University

01/13/2017
12:30-1:30 PM PT
120 Communications

The black-white wealth gap in the United States is vast and increases with age. To better understand this disparity, we adopt a life course perspective, examining the accumulation of wealth across individuals’ lives and how wealth accumulation changes with age. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, we show that whites accumulate wealth more rapidly than blacks throughout their 20s, 30s, and 40s, and the gap grows dramatically in the 30s. Unlike whites, whose annual wealth accumulation grows over the life course, blacks’ annual wealth accumulation remains low throughout early and middle adulthood. Individual traits, especially income and education, explain about 2/3 of the race gap in total wealth accumulation between ages 20 and 50. When we account for the tighter income-accumulation association as individuals age, the role of income differences increases still more. Net of individual traits, black-white differences in social origins explain only 2 percent of the race gap in wealth accumulated between ages 20 and 50. Blacks are cumulatively disadvantaged in wealth accumulation across the life course in two ways: (1) because their median annual wealth accumulation is always lower than whites’, with each year they fall farther behind in amassed wealth; (2) because the black-white accumulation gap grows with age, blacks lose ground at an increasing rate each year.


Alexandra (Sasha) Killewald is Professor of Sociology, as well as a faculty member in the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Public Policy and Sociology from the University of Michigan in 2011. Prior to her appointment at Harvard she was a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Her research takes a demographic approach to the study of social stratification.