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Different experiences. Different histories. Different roads to living in the United States in 2010. Today, Black, White, and Latino families of the same income have very different levels of wealth. The three groups have different levels of educational attainment, life savings, hourly wages, access to medical care, and different life expectancies.

Here’s where it gets hard. We know about the different life chances of people of different racial backgrounds, but it’s hard to sort out exactly why the outcomes are so different. Of course, chances are that a kid starts out in a different socio-economic position depending on his racial and ethnic background, and starting out in a more advantageous spot has an effect on the outcome. But why do the differences where these various Americans start out persist in generation after generation? If there’s been government intervention from time to time to blunt the effects of historic discrimination, how come it hasn’t succeeded in narrowing the gaps in American life much more than we’ve seen so far?

This has been a tough decade to sort out the different ways different Americans get ahead, since so many Americans of every race have been downwardly mobile for so much of the decade. The burst of the housing bubble took down the weak and the strong, people who had used their houses like ATMs and people who had just managed to squeeze through the front door with a low down payment and an exotic mortgage.

People who haven’t done too badly, in relative terms, are in no mood to hear about the persistent gaps between rich and poor, or native-born whites and everyone else. But the differences are real, and while many white families have suffered terribly during this time, many of the economic indicators have dropped even more drastically among other Americans. Unemployment and underemployment have shot up among black and brown Americans. Even in the smaller home owning base, foreclosures and bankruptcies have crippled family balance sheets.

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When testers from federal agencies and fair housing groups head out to the offices of mortgage brokers across the country they find even with similar assets, income, and credit histories, black and brown borrowers are offered mortgages with less preferred repayment terms and higher rates of interest. Are the troubled repayment histories more common in black and brown residential areas the result of less favorable mortgages, or the less favorable mortgages the result of the more frequently troubled repayment histories. The ability to use real estate as a performing asset has lifted millions of white families into middle class comfort. The inability to use real estate that way represents the single largest difference in the wealth accumulation when compared with other families of different racial and ethnic background but the same level of income.

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