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Mark Trahant
Indian Country Today

There is a story told about how we are defined by talent, taking what we have learned and building a successful career and path. The economic data shows something else. Families with wealth have a head start.

This is certainly true in Indian Country where studies have detailed that disparity, such as one that found American Indian and Alaska Native households have only 8 cents of wealth for every dollar controlled by the average White American household.

The wealth gap has been consistent, if nothing else.

The U.S. House Select Committee on Race and Economic Disparity held a hearing Thursday that looked at the problem and explored potential solutions. What would the country look like if there was a level playing field?

“Communities of color tend to experience worse economic outcomes than their white counterparts. Race and ethnicity prove to be powerful predictors of educational attainment, labor market outcomes, lifetime earnings, economic mobility, and even life expectancy,” the committee’s pre-hearing memo reported. “The government has made much progress, particularly over the past century, to end long standing economic disparities, but there is still much to be done to fully live up to the framework laid out in the US Constitution.”

Among those testifying to the committee Thursday was Darrick Hamilton, the Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy and director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School.

“Many Americans, and Black, Brown, and Indigenous families in particular, have low wealth, low income, inadequate health care, and work in precarious but ‘essential’ jobs that have fewer workplace protections, lower wages, and fewer benefits,” Hamilton said Thursday at the hearing. “Indeed, the biggest pre-existing condition of the health and economic toll of this pandemic is wealth…

“Over the last half-century essentially all of our nation’s productivity gains have gone to the elite and upper middle-classes, while effectively flat-lining real worker wages for everyone else,” he said. “This has resulted in an obscene, undemocratic, dysfunctional concentration of wealth and power, especially by race, that has not been seen since the Gilded Age.”

The economic evidence of that growing gap shows up in the difference between productivity and salaries. A report cited by Hamilton in his testimony explained that most of the time there is a parallel between productivity and higher wages. But since 1979 that has not been the case — wages grew at only 17.5 percent while productivity jumped 61.8 percent.

“Since the late 1970s, our policy choices have led directly to a pronounced divergence between productivity and typical workers’ pay. It doesn’t have to be this way,” Hamilton said. “Our unjust racial wealth gap is itself an implicit measure of our racist past that is rooted in a history in which Whites have been privileged by government-complicit political and economic intervention that have afforded them access to resources and iterative and inter-generational accumulation. This is in contrast to a history in which Black (and Indigenous) personhood and whatever capital and resources they may have established have been vulnerable to state-complicit exploitation and extrapolating.”

Hamilton said there are policy courses that could mitigate that unfairness, especially by using the tax code to promote fairness.

“The refundable child tax credit could be a good start, but we could do better than cutting poverty in half; no one should live in poverty; it is immoral and cruel,” he said.

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.

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