Shapiro Book Surveys Gaps Created by Wealth, Race

Tom Shapiro
Max Pearlstein
Tom Shapiro

In 1998, Tom Shapiro, the Pokross Professor of Law and Social Policy at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management, conducted interviews that formed the basis for “The Hidden Cost of Being African-American,” his 2004 book about the wealth gap between black families and white families.

The composition of Shapiro’s pool of interviewees was divided evenly between black/white, urban/suburban and middle-class/working-class/poor. His analysis found that black families lagged well behind their white counterparts in accumulating assets like home equity, even though the black families’ average income had increased over the previous decades.

More than 10 years later, Shapiro and his colleagues at the Institute on Assets and Social Policy, which he directs, re-interviewed the same families for a new book, “Toxic Inequality,” which was published in March.

Unfortunately, the challenging economic landscape many of the families faced has only gotten worse, the researchers discovered.

“What’s very special about the present moment [in the U.S.] is that we’re seeing an unholy convergence of historic highs in wealth and income inequality with a widening racial wealth gap,” Shapiro says.

In “Toxic Inequality,” Shapiro attempts to merge two influential takes on wealth and race in America. “The Occupy movement of several years ago focused largely on income equality and wealth, and race and ethnicity didn’t enter that conversation,” he explains. “More recent movements, like Black Lives Matter, created a different set of conversations about what inequality looks like in the U.S., centered on race.”

Understanding inequality today means understanding wealth and race disparities in tandem, Shapiro asserts. Government policies that have driven the U.S. to new levels of income inequality ensure that stakes in the American dream are divided along income and class lines as well as racial and ethnic lines, he says.

“Toxic Inequality” explores how these policies affect real Americans. “One of the great values of the book, I hope, is making these macro forces concrete, and showing how they play out in the lives of families and communities,” says Shapiro.

— Max Pearlstein ’01