Thursday, December 13, 2007

The rich get richer.

Sometime last year at one of our Orange County homelessness round tables, I met a young single African American woman who was living at the women's shelter. She'd lost her job in the health care business and so she couldn't make rent any more. At the time I met her, she was working at Chick Fill-A, but that wasn't enough to pay for shelter. All she had was her car, and it needed repairs totaling a couple hundred dollars that she didn't have.

Can't your family help? I asked naively. After all, that's what I would do--ask for help. (Wouldn't you?) They sympathized but there wasn't any way they could help, she said.

I thought about her again when I read Henry Louis Gates' op-ed in the NYT last month. Looking for "clues about how to address an increasingly entrenched inequality," Gates writes,

I have been studying the family trees of 20 successful African-Americans, people in fields ranging from entertainment and sports (Oprah Winfrey, the track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee) to space travel and medicine (the astronaut Mae Jemison and Ben Carson, a pediatric neurosurgeon). And I’ve seen an astonishing pattern: 15 of the 20 descend from at least one line of former slaves who managed to obtain property by 1920 — a time when only 25 percent of all African-American families owned property.

And so, Gates concludes, "The telltale fact is that the biggest gap in black prosperity isn’t in income, but in wealth." Forty acres and a mule would would have made a difference. Is he right?

Comes now Melinda Miller, a Ph.D. student in economics at the University of Michigan, to test this proposition. She has studied the records of families of former slaves of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma who did receive property settlements because the treaty negotiations required it. Her conclusion:

I find the racial gap in land ownership, farm size, and investment in long-term capital projects is smaller in the Cherokee Nation than in the southern United States. The advantages Cherokee freedmen experience in these areas translate into smaller wealth and income gaps in the Cherokee Nation than in the South. Additionally, Cherokee freedmen had higher absolute levels of wealth and higher levels of income than southern freedmen. These results together suggest that access to free land had a considerable positive benefit on former slaves.

Via historian Ralph Luker, who can't help noticing that Miller is a student of economics, not history.

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