Want to figure out whether you’ll be a millionaire? A good place to start is the color of your skin.
Bloomberg News asked economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis a question: Would it be possible to calculate the odds of being a millionaire for anyone in the U.S., based on age, education and race? Having already done extensive work in this area, bank researchers William Emmons, Bryan Noeth and Lowell Ricketts agreed to help.
Of these three demographic characteristics, race stuck out as especially dominant in determining a person’s net worth. Its power is illustrated by the stark contrasts it creates in individuals’ outcomes, and the effects are only magnified by race’s immutability.
“It’s a false narrative to say race doesn’t matter in the United States,” said Emmons, a senior economic adviser at the St. Louis Fed. “It demonstrably does in the results we keep coming."
For example, education generally benefits people across all racial and ethnic groups, according to the St. Louis Fed analysis. However, it helps whites and Asians far more than Hispanics and blacks.
According to the sample, a black person’s odds of being a millionaire increase from less than 1 percent if he or she doesn't complete high school to 6.7 percent with a graduate degree. White Americans without a high school diploma start out with slightly better chances—1.7 percent—that rapidly improve with more school: A graduate-level education increases their probability of amassing a net worth greater than $1 million to 37 percent.
The divergences race creates are easily illustrated looking at 40- to 61-year-olds. At middle age, a black graduate-degree holder has just about the same odds of being a millionaire as a white person who only completed high school.
There’s a narrative in the U.S. that “everybody starts out equally,” Emmons said. “The results that we keep coming across suggest that’s kind of hard to imagine.”
It’s not as difficult to see how large wealth gaps can form and persist. For one, discrimination can harm some Americans’ employment prospects. In a well-known study by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan, researchers responded to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers with fake résumés from white- or black-sounding applicant names. The same résumés bearing monikers such as Emily Walsh and Greg Baker received 50 percent more callbacks for interviews than those with names such as Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones.
Other studies during the last few decades have also shown that differing levels of access to education, homeownership, loans, inheritance and family assistance play a role.
The large amount of sway that race, age and education hold over a person’s life creates a challenge for those who would use social policy to fix inequalities. For example, young people are generally more vulnerable to swings in the housing cycle, they can have trouble establishing themselves in the labor market and they’re not the best at making financial decisions. But you can’t change a person’s age.
And even time favors Asians and whites far more than it does other racial and ethnic groups. An Asian person younger than 40 years old has a 2.4 percent chance of being a millionaire, odds that soar to 21 percent by the time he’s nearing or in retirement. For Hispanics, those chances barely budge: from less than 1 percent when they’re young to 2.3 percent when they’re 62 or older.
“A lot of what people talk about as responses to inequality of this sort or that sort—they’re probably not going to make much difference given that these underlying factors seem to be so powerful,” Emmons said.
While that may seem cause for despair, the results of this analysis are valuable as a starting point for changes a person can make in behavior to achieve greater financial success, Emmons said. Those include a young person waiting to buy a house until she can actually afford it or evaluating how much postsecondary schooling to take on.
It’s also important to keep in mind that wealth is just one measure of accomplishment.
“We all come out in the birth lottery with different endowments,” Emmons said. “Starting from that point, what can you do to move yourself in a direction you’ll be happy with? That’s what we’re really trying to get at.”