The Color of Wealth in Boston

by Ana Patricia Muñoz, Marlene Kim, Mariko Chang,
Regine O. Jackson, Darrick Hamilton, William A. Darity Jr.

The widening wealth gap in the United States is a worrisome sign that millions of families nationwide do not have enough in assets to offer better opportunities for future generations. Wealth allows families to make investments in homes, in education, and in business creation. On the basis of data collected using the National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color (NASCC) survey, we report that, when analyzed by race, wealth accumulation is vastly unequal. By means of the NASCC survey, researchers have collected, for the first time, detailed data on assets and debts among subpopulations, according to race, ethnicity, and country of origin—granular detail ordinarily unavailable in public datasets. In this analysis we focus on estimates for U.S. born blacks, Caribbean blacks, Cape Verdeans, Puerto Ricans, and Dominicans in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA). Our analysis shows that with respect to types and size of assets and debt held, the data collected on white households and nonwhite households exhibit large differences. The result is that the net worth of whites as compared with nonwhites is staggeringly divergent.

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  • Key Findings
  • Exhibit
  • Implications
  • Methodology

Key Findings

  • The typical white household in Boston is more likely than nonwhite households to own every type of liquid asset. For example, close to half of Puerto Ricans and a quarter of U.S. blacks don't have either a savings or checking account, compared to only 7% of whites.
  • Whites and nonwhites also exhibit important differences in assets that associated with homeownership, basic transportation, and retirement. Close to 80% of whites own a home, whereas only one-third of U.S. blacks, less than one-fifth of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, and only half of Caribbean blacks are homeowners. And while most white households (56 percent) own retirement accounts, only one-fifth of U.S and Caribbean blacks, and 8 percent of Dominicans have them.
  • Although members of communities of color are less likely to own homes, among homeowners they are more likely to have mortgage debt. Nonwhite households are more likely than whites to have student loans and medical debt.
  • Nonwhite households have only a fraction of the net worth attributed to white households. While white households have a median wealth of $247,500, Dominicans and U.S. blacks have a median wealth of close to zero. Of all nonwhite groups for which estimates could be made, Caribbean black households have the highest median wealth with $12,000, which is only 5 percent of the wealth attributed to white households in the Boston MSA.


Median total asset and net worth values by race and ethnicity
(U.S. dollars)

Chart: Median total asset and net worth values by race and ethnicity in the Boston MSA (U.S. dollars)

Source: NASCC, author's calculations.
Notes: The median denotes the value at the midpoint of the distribution (50 percent of households have less than the median and 50 percent have more than the median estimates).  Total assets include home equity values (value of the home minus mortgage debt) but do not include cash on hand. Net worth is calculated by subtracting debt from total asset values. The cases where net worth is close to zero imply that there are a number of households that have more debts than assets.  Net worth values for Cape Verdean households were not calculated because the sample size was too small. For those groups for which the data are reported, the estimation excluded "missing values," that is, cases where the respondents indicated that they had assets or debt but had not assigned a value. Estimations may change if missing values are imputed.


Population growth in the Boston MSA is already driven by the nonwhite population increase. Thus, the financial well-being of communities of color is central to ensuring the inclusive long-term growth and prosperity of the Boston MSA. Unless net worth outcomes in communities of color improve, the aggregate magnitude of the wealth disparity will increase. This is a first-order public policy problem requiring immediate attention. Policies aimed at bridging the wealth gap should also consider the wide diversity among nonwhite populations and be targeted or adapted accordingly. Policy solutions are complex and need to use a multifaceted approach that includes input from practitioners who are familiar with the unique needs and challenges different communities of color face.

National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color (NASCC) methodology

The National Asset Scorecard for Communities of Color (NASCC) is a research initiative that includes the design and implementation of a pilot survey in targeted metropolitan areas to collect data about the asset and debt positions of racial and ethnic groups at a detailed ancestral origin level. In the past, other efforts have studied the net worth position of broadly defined ethnic groups, such as Latinos or Asians taken collectively. In contrast, the NASCC survey collects asset and debt information on key subgroups within the broader categories—
from such subgroups as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans or Asian Indians, Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese. The NASCC data collection also includes information about native Americans, disaggregated by tribal affiliation, and about black Americans, disaggregated by ancestral origin, that is, whether from the Caribbean or recently from the African continent. To date, little had been known about the asset positions of these subgroups.

The survey was conducted in the Boston MSA and in four other metropolitan areas (Los Angeles, CA; Miami, FL; Tulsa, OK; and Washington, DC). These areas were chosen using a systematic approach to ascertain the geographic and demographic national representativeness of the ethnic groups defined at the ancestral origin level. Criteria for choosing metropolitan areas to be included in the sampling were primarily ethnic plurality and other variables such as geographical representation, area size, and access to certain ethnic groups that might be hard to identify in an urban context.

The survey instrument was designed primarily to gather information about a respondent's specific assets, liabilities, financial resources, and personal savings and investment activity at the household level. Additional areas of inquiry included remittance behavior, that is, sending assets or other resources abroad, and support for relatives in the United States. In addition, the survey collects information on home ownership, foreclosure experiences, and the equity status of homes.  The survey also solicits additional information relevant to the financial experiences of lower wealth nonwhite individuals, such as the use of payday lenders. Core demographic characteristics, such as age, sex, educational attainment, household composition, nativity, income, and family background, are included in the survey.

The asset and debt module of the questionnaire replicates questions used in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the longest running national longitudinal household survey that collects data on employment, income, wealth, expenditures, health, marriage, education, and numerous other topics. For the non-asset and debt-based questions, the NASCC survey replicated many questions found on the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality (MCSUI) survey, which in the early 1990s was a cross-sectional four-city survey aimed at gathering socioeconomic data across ethnic and racial groups.

Various sampling techniques were used to locate and identify an ethnically plural sample consisting of the specifically defined ethnic groups. The techniques included the following: directory-listed landline samples targeted to census tracts where specific ethnic groups were known to reside; cell phone random digit dialing samples drawn from rate centers that covered the targeted ethnic group ZIP codes; samples drawn from targeted ZIP codes on the basis of billing address; and the use of surname-based lists targeting specific national origin groups.