This is part one of a three-part series exploring the demographics, opinions and challenges of black Americans who are part of the “black 1 percent” — the top earning black households in the U.S. CNBC’s Shartia Brantley is a regular contributor to theGrio.
The Occupy movement has stretched far beyond the borders of Wall Street in just over two months. Protesters energetically hoist signs and carry posters that read “We are the 99 percent.” But who are the 1 percent that have angered so many and sparked a national movement? And how many blacks are a part of the top 1 percent?
It turns out: not many.
Blacks comprise 13.6 percent of the U.S. population according to the 2010 Census, but account for only 1.4 percent of the top 1 percent of households by income. Whites are the overwhelming majority of the top 1 percent of households by income, comprising 96.2 percent. (Results were calculated from 2007 data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances and the Tax Policy Center’s tax table, The income cutoff to be a part of the top 1 percent was $646,195.)
Samuel Myers, the Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphreys School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota says it’s no surprise blacks share of the top 1 percent is low.
“Racial minority group members hold a small share of top earnings, top wealth and top holdings of assets in virtually every data set and every time period relative to their representation in the overall population,” Myers told theGrio,
Blacks Have a Thin Slice of the Pie
Even within the top 1 percent of wage earners there is a disparity. Top earning black households have a median income of $823,000, which is 22 percent less than whites and considerably less when compared to Hispanics.
Despite the shortfall in income, top earning blacks fare better on income than on net worth when compared to other groups.
“The income gap between black and white 1 percenters is much smaller than [the gap between] blacks and whites in the 99 percenters,” according to William Rodgers, Professor of Public Policy at Rutgers University and former Chief Economist at the Labor Department. “The chasm still exists in assets among the top 1 percent,”
“We’re getting income, but blacks have not had the generation to accumulate the amount of assets of White counterparts,” Rodgers said.
Who Are the Black 1 Percent?
Top earning black households are more likely to be in their mid-40s or older and college educated. About 67 percent reported no industry or employment, drawing their income from assets and investments.
Finance, insurance, real estate, employment services, mining, and construction industries account for 2 percent of top black earners.
However, there is a greater representation in durable goods manufacturing, non durable goods manufacturing, publishing, performing arts and spectator sports industries, which account for 37 percent of the top earners.
“Disproportionately, they are in entertainment, sports, and speculative investing activities,” says Myers.
A black “1 percenter,” who serves as a senior executive for a Fortune 500 company and asked not to be identified, says he is building first generation wealth. “Every African-American I know that has achieved wealth has done it by hard work,” he said. “Our legacy is not passing on wealth, but passing on [the] work ethic.”
He’s optimistic the hard work will translate into greater assets. “As we build more wealth, this will likely be given to the next generation.”
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Barriers to Accumulating Wealth
Debt and lack of inheritance are major barriers to accumulating net worth, even among wealthy blacks.
Blacks in the top 1 percent have more debt than their counterparts. The median household debt for blacks is $1,370,000, which is 356 percent higher than Whites at $300,000 and a median zero debt for Hispanics.
The Great Recession has not helped matters. “Savings were at an all time low, debt levels were extremely high for Americans entering the recession and particularly African-Americans,” Rodgers said.
“African-Americans start out with fewer resources and assets and not having a cushion to borrow against is a greater uphill battle for African-Americans,” explained Rodgers.
Although blacks of similar age and education fare pretty well compared to their non-black counterparts in the top 1 percent, there is a stark contrast in net worth. Top earning black households have a median net worth of $1,200,000, which pales in comparison to other groups.
Darity says in-vivo transfers (transfers of wealth from person to person during each party’s lifetime) and inheritance play a bigger role than debt in the net worth equation.
“We’re far behind not because of the accumulation of debt during the course of a Black person’s life cycle,” said William Darity, Professor of Public Policy, African and African-American Studies and Economics at Duke University. “We’re far behind because we don’t start out with an inheritance,”
Creating a Wealth Cycle
Darity emphasizes the importance of reviewing redistribution measures to close the wealth gap. He and Darrick Hamilton, an associate professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, have proposed child development accounts called “baby bonds.” Every child born to families that fall below a certain wealth threshold would receive an endowment they could tap into at age 18.
Darity estimates 3 million newborns with an average endowment of $20,000 would cost the U.S. government $60 Billion annually. He stresses the price tag is not expensive in the context of the overall federal budget.
“We focus on doing this for newborns because there’s no reason to believe their poverty is contributed to any action of their own,” Darity said.
In part two of the “Black 1 Percent” series, we get the perspectives of black Wall Street, and discover that they often identify with the 99 percent, and believe they are unfairly tarred with the broad anti-bank brush.