White households in the United States have 10 times the median wealth of black households and eight times that of Hispanic households, the Census Bureau reported yesterday.
Based on surveys conducted in 1988, the bureau found that the median white household -- the one halfway down the scale between top and bottom -- had net assets of $43,280. In the median black household, net assets totaled only $4,170, and for the Hispanic household, $5,520.
"It means that you have grinding poverty, the absence of amenities, books, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, health care, college funds, the kind of things that build the environment that move people toward upward mobility," said Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP.
John Jacob, president of the National Urban League, said, "It really means the poverty we see demonstrated in the Afro-American community is likely to continue for some time. We do not own any assets, any goods. . . . We're not going to move toward a position of parity without increasing the wealth of the Afro-American community and we can't do that without doing something about unemployment . . . business ownership" and similar problems.
Mario Moreno, regional counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said "There is a vast disparity between Hispanics and non-Hispanics in terms of net worth. It dramatizes both the need for education to help us get jobs beyond the dead-end jobs many of our people have, and also the disparities in terms of access to the workplace."
Economist Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute and Georgetown University Law School said the study shows wealth differences between the median white household and the two minorities are even greater than income differences. "We focus so much attention on the poverty line and average incomes that we tend to forget that there are even more egregious differences in wealth among different groups.
"It means that minorities have much less of a private safety net to fall back on during hard times," Sawhillsaid.
In the census surveys, wealth was calculated by first totaling the value of all bank accounts, stocks, bonds, homes and other real estate and motor vehicles owned by a household. Then mortages, debts and outstanding bills reported by the census's sample were deducted to reach a net asset or wealth figure.
The census report shows that not only is there a huge gap in wealth between whites and minorities, but, as Sawhill noted, an income gap as well, though not as extreme.
The median white household had monthly income of $2,064, black $1,305 and Hispanic $1,582.
Combining the net assets of white, black and Hispanic households, the Census Bureau found that for the nation as a whole, the median household had net assets of $35,752. Three quarters of that, the bureau found, was in the form of equity in a home.
The bureau also found that the top fifth of all households, ranked by monthly income, owned 44 percent of total household wealth while the bottom fifth owned only 7 percent.
The report released yesterday was the second of its kind made public by the census. A previous one, covering 1984, showed that median household net worth then was $37,012 in 1988 dollars, higher than the latest figure, but the difference may be due to sampling error.