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Here's One Reason Why America's Racial Wealth Gap Persists Across Generations

Figures of people in silhouette surround a yellow home
A new poll finds white adults are more than twice as likely as others to get sizable financial help from parents or grandparents. By contrast, Black adults are more likely to give money to elders.
(Tracy J. Lee for NPR
Tracy J. Lee for NPR)
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Angela Chevaux and her husband have made a good living in York, Pa. She's an insurance claims supervisor and he's in construction. But still, a recent inheritance from her father-in-law has been life-changing. He left them a retirement account, a life insurance policy, an annuity — and her husband and his brother inherited an old farmhouse in a secluded spot with a pond.

"We were able to buy the property — the other half — out from his brother at a decent price," Chevaux says.

She figures they paid about half what the appraised value would have been.

Three people in matching shirts stand with their arms around each other
A recent inheritance has allowed the Chevaux family of York, Pa., to pay down a mortgage and student loan debt. That kind of generational wealth transfer is far more common for white families than for others.
Courtesy Angela Chevaux)
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They're renovating the farmhouse to live in and are selling their own home, saying goodbye to 11 more years of payments.

"We'll be mortgage-free at [ages] 50 and 59!" she says with a laugh.

Her father-in-law also left Chevaux's 24-year-old son a money market account.

"He had given our son some money towards college before he passed," she says. "So then this allowed him to pay off the rest of his college debt."

Her son is a financial adviser and has invested the rest of his inheritance, with plans to use it to help buy a house.

The family's financial fortunes show one way that America's stark racial wealth gap has persisted — and even widened — over generations. White adults are more than twice as likely as Black and Latino households to get sizable financial help from parents or other elders. That's according to a new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dorothy Brown, a tax law professor at Georgetown University, wishes more white families would talk about these intergenerational benefits.

"Because you have Black Americans who are doing everything they were told is right and not getting ahead," she says. "And they're scratching their heads wondering, 'How come I'm not doing better than I am? How come I'm not doing better than the guy in the cubicle next to me?' "

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The new poll finds 38% of white adults say they've gotten at least $10,000 in gifts or loans from a parent or older relative. Only 14% of Black adults receive similar gifts or loans. The share is 16% for Latinos and 19% for Native Americans.

Brown says this divide reflects generations of segregation and racism, especially in housing policies. Racially restrictive covenants barred white people from selling or renting their homes to African Americans or other minority groups. And Federal Housing Administration policies supported such restrictions.

"So if your grandparent got a home that was FHA insured, it was a result of their being white," she says. "You don't think about that, but it was."

The racial wealth gap is also evident in lots of other questions in the poll.

"When people talk about the American dream, it's here," says Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor emeritus of health policy who worked on the poll.

A large number of Black, Latino and Native American adults say they want to move to better housing and expect their children to go to college, but they don't have the money to pay for those things.

"These minority communities are ... going to have to borrow everything in a very risky environment for that," Blendon says, "and they don't have anything to at least help defray some of the costs."

What's at stake, he says, is the ability to make the choices that can help families, and future generations, move ahead.

For Black Americans, wealth is more likely to flow up

For African Americans, especially, tax expert Brown says the generational wealth transfer is actually more likely to go the other way — children helping parents who suffered under Jim Crow.

A couple sits on a couch
Theodore Bailey and his wife, Audrey, live in Marana, Ariz. He's among many college-educated Black Americans who provide extensive financial support to family, something research finds contributes to the persistent racial wealth gap because it diminishes funding for inheritances.
Courtesy Theodore Bailey)

That's the story of Theodore Bailey, who's 76 and remembers a tough childhood in segregated Nashville.

"My father died when I was 3 years old," he says. "My mother was a single mother with four sons."

His dad died while he was a military cook in World War II, which led to a major break for Bailey. As a war orphan he was able to go to college on the GI Bill, and that launched a successful career as an engineer and missile designer. From early on, Bailey sent money to help his mother get by.

"I knew she was struggling, you know. And at the time, I didn't have a whole lot to spare, but I'd send her whatever I could," he says.

Now retired in Arizona, Bailey says he's always helped family. That includes supporting a brother who lost a job, sending grandchildren to college, and being there for others along the way.

"Oh," he says with a chuckle, "there's always cousins and nephews and things that want to borrow money, and a lot of times they don't pay back."

Research shows family help like this seriously depletes the wealth of college-educated Black Americans. Bailey says he's now having to cash out more of his IRA than he'd like to in this bad market, to meet his own expenses.

He's not sure how much there will be left to pass on to his children and grandchildren.

"I invested in them, putting them through college and so forth," he says. "I'm hoping they can take care of themselves."

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