On Oct. 10, students, faculty and members of the community gathered at the Millennium Centre for the second talk of the Leading Voices in Public Health Lecture Series.

Thomas Shapiro
(Photograph courtesy of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy)

Director of the Institute on Assets and Social Policy Thomas Shapiro delivered the lecture and addressed key elements of his new book “Toxic Inequality: How America’s Wealth Gap Destroys Mobility, Deepens the Racial Divide, & Threatens Our Future.”

Shapiro began by telling the audience about Patricia, a woman whom he and his team have interviewed various times over the past three decades while performing a study on the racial wealth gap in America. Through her story, he urged listeners to look at poverty through a different lens.

“What I really want to bring to the conversation about poverty and inequality is looking at that through the lens of family wealth,” Shapiro said. “Traditionally in the United States we look at poverty through what the individual’s family income. Income is important, but it’s only part of the resources a family can have. What’s more important is the wealth a family does or doesn’t have.”

He argued that by looking at poverty in America in terms of wealth, we are able to get a better understanding of what is happening economically and get a more accurate representation of the widening wealth gap.

Shapiro shared key finding from his study “The Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap: Explaining the Black-White Economic Divide.” He found that in 2016, the median white family wealth in America is $171,000 while the median wealth for blacks is just $17,600. He also found that this gap is growing over time.

In 1984, the gap was between white and black wealth in America and stood at $84,400, but by 2013, it had more than tripled to $245,000. However, studies show that most families in America, both white and black alike, live from paycheck to paycheck and have no significant amount of savings. So where is American wealth if it is not in our bank accounts?

“For most American families, by far, the largest reservoir of wealth that we have is in home equity,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro’s findings on the wealth of Americans help us better understand what is happening in our country in order to provide a better chance for all to succeed.

“People tend to say they get depressed by what I talk about,” Shapiro said. “But I really do profoundly believe that we can’t improve things until we have a real assessment of where we are.”

The next lecture in this series will be given by Regina Walker on Feb. 15, 2018.