Diverging Fortunes: Racial/Ethnic Inequality in Wealth Trajectories in Middle and Late Life
The primary aim of this study is to examine whether racial/ethnic inequality in wealth dissipates or increases between middle and late life, and by how much. To address this aim, this study draws on critical race and life course perspectives as well as 10 waves of panel data from the Health and Retirement Study and growth curve models to understand racial/ethnic inequality in wealth trajectories among whites, blacks, and Mexican Americans (N = 8337). Findings show that, by midlife, significant inequalities in net worth emerge between whites and their black and Mexican American counterparts. On average, white households have amassed a net worth of $105k by midlife, compared to less than $5k and $39k among black and Mexican American families, respectively. Moreover, whites experience much more rapid rates of wealth accumulation during their 50s and 60s than their minority counterparts, resulting in increasing wealth disparities with age, consistent with a process of cumulative disadvantage. At the peak of their wealth trajectory (at age 66), whites have approximately $245k more than blacks and $219k more than Mexican Americans. A wide range of socioeconomic, behavioral, and health factors account for a portion, but not all, of racial/ethnic inequality in wealth, suggesting that unobserved factors such as parental wealth, segregation, and discrimination may play a role in the production and maintenance of wealth inequality.
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