Back in 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston released a report, The Color of Wealth in Boston, that shed an unflattering light on a city that has boasted racial progress on at least some fronts.
The report found, among other things, a stark racial divide on not just income but overall household wealth—the latter figure factoring in metrics like household assets and mortgage debt. Using this measurement, the report found that White households had a median net worth just shy of $250,000. For Black households, median household wealth totaled eight dollars.
Now, a new initiative by the Boston Foundation and its research center, Boston Indicators, hopes to explore the racial wealth divide in Greater Boston, as well as more broadly, in the hopes of identifying new approaches to closing the persistent gap.
The Racial Wealth Equity Resource Center, launched in 2023, aims to be a new website that “provides a home for new research on racial wealth inequities in Greater Boston and across the country,” according to a press release by the Boston Foundation.
“[We could help] a better civic agenda emerge in the coming years.”The new site represents an acknowledgment by the influential philanthropic organization that the racial wealth gap remains profoundly entrenched in Massachusetts, and indeed throughout American society—and that purported efforts to close that gap have in many cases failed or fallen far short.
Luc Schuster, the executive director of Boston Indicators who is overseeing the new resource center, tells NPQ that the project aims to move the conversation from identifying the problem to an honest and empirical assessment of existing and potential attempts to solve it.
“There was a period of time when there was a lot of focus on the challenges of income inequality in Greater Boston, and rightly so. But it hasn’t been until more recent years that that’s been paired with an acknowledgment of how that inequality has grown—especially when looking beyond just income to overall family wealth,” says Schuster. “The opportunity the next generation has to buy a home, attend college, invest in graduate school, start a new business—all of that is hamstrung in a really unique way by low asset levels, particularly among Black and Latino families in Greater Boston.”
Schuster mentions that there already exists “a growing…critical mass of folks who have recognized that racial wealth inequity is among our most pressing challenges” but acknowledges the lack of a good shared agenda for action to work on.
“We don’t think we have the answers to that big challenge,” admits Schuster. “But we do think that by being a hub for pulling together and exploring the best research that that’s out there on these questions, [we could help] a better civic agenda emerge in the coming years.”
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The project reflects a new focus on the racial wealth gap.A recent report by the Center, for example, A Long Road Home: A Racial Equity Analysis of Homeownership Support Programs in Massachusetts, confronts the legacy and ongoing reality of racism and discrimination in homeownership among residents of color in Greater Boston.
The report attempts to survey the efficacy of local and regional programs intended to help close the racial homeownership gap—a crucial piece of the overall racial wealth gap. It also states that “the array of programs and policies that exists is often confusing to those seeking to buy a home” and recommends ways to improve some of those programs. According to Schuster, the report is an example of the kind of solutions-focused research the new Center plans to host.
“Most of that new research we are planning to do as part of this effort is policy research exploring levers for boosting assets. So, homeownership obviously fits that really well,” notes Schuster.
“Grantmaking can really make a difference but there’s a limit.”
Though it’s still in its early days of research, the project and its focus on the racial wealth gap reflects a new orientation of priorities by the leadership of the influential Boston Foundation. Through its grants, the Foundation serves as a private-sector nonprofit catalyst of various policy and service initiatives throughout the region.
The Boston Foundation’s new CEO, M. Lee Pelton, who came to the Foundation in 2021 after serving as president of Boston’s Emerson College, has made closing the racial wealth gap “a top strategic priority for grantmaking,” Schuster says.
By focusing on closing the racial wealth gap and creating new tools to understand and address it, the Boston Foundation hopes to elevate the issue and spark interest, investment, and action around it more widely.
“Grantmaking can really make a difference, but there’s a limit,” adds Schuster. “So, the idea is to share civic leadership work that can help galvanize change at a greater scale through public policy efforts, largely through pushing for legislative change either at the state or local level.”