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    Study says policies let inequality fester

    Assets are more divided along racial and ethnic lines than in the past.

    Addressing the effects of historically unjust policies that denied African-Americans and Latinos opportunities for homeownership, education, and financial security would dramatically narrow the wealth gap between white households and people of color, according to a study released Tuesday.

    If black families had the same opportunities as white families to increase assets through investments, retirement plans, and other measures, for instance, it would shrink the wealth gap between the two groups by nearly $45,000, or 43 percent, according to the study, done by Brandeis University and the left-leaning public policy organization Demos. For Latino families, it would reduce the gap by 50 percent.

    “The racial wealth gap is large because we instituted it in public policy historically and continue to make public policies that exacerbate the problems,” said coauthor Catherine Ruetschlin, a senior policy analyst at Demos. The goal, she said, “is to find new opportunities to address the way that we’re constantly perpetuating this disparity between black, white, and Latino families.”

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    People of color are expected to become a majority of the US population by the middle of the century, yet assets are more sharply divided along racial and ethnic lines than in the past. The wealth gap between white and African-American families nearly tripled between 1984 and 2009, according to the Institute for Assets & Social Policy at Brandeis, and differences in homeownership, education, and jobs were among the biggest contributors.

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    The median white household held assets of $111,146 in 2011, compared to $7,113 for the median black household, and $8,348 for Latinos.

    To examine how to narrow this gulf, the institute developed a tool that applies the financial holdings of white households to that of other groups to measure how leveling the playing field in certain areas would affect the wealth gap.

    For example, less than half of Latino and black families own their own homes, compared to 73 percent of whites. If those home ownership rates were equalized at 73 percent, the study found, median black and Latino wealth would grow by around $30,000, shrinking the gap by nearly one-third.

    People of color also get less of a return on their homeownership investment. For every $1 in wealth that black homeowners accrue as a result of owning a home, white households get $1.34; for every $1 that Latinos gain, whites get $1.54.

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    Equalizing the financial gains from home ownership would shrink the gap between whites and blacks by 16 percent and between whites and Latinos by 41 percent.

    Cracking down on discriminatory practices that keep people of color from buying homes in higher-value neighborhoods and allowing the government-backed mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to modify loans for struggling homeowners could help shrink the disparity, according to the report.

    Another barrier to homeownership for people of color is the push by lenders for larger down payments.

    “Homeownership is by far the largest reservoir of wealth and financial stability that American families have,” said coauthor Thomas Shapiro, director of the Brandeis Institute for Assets & Social Policy. “It’s just that it is so widely, inequitably distributed at this point in time in the value of wealth that it creates.”

    Eliminating disparities in income through measures such raising the minimum wage, making it easier for workers to join unions, and implementing a federal jobs creation program would also have a significant impact on the racial wealth gap.

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    The median white household made $50,400 a year in 2011, compared to $32,028 for black families and $36,840 for Latinos. Leveling incomes would shrink the wealth gap with whites by 11 percent for blacks and 9 percent for Latinos.

    Equalizing the effects of higher education had a much smaller impact on the wealth gap than did changes in homeownership and labor markets. Black families have a college graduation rate of 20 percent, and Latinos have a 13 percent graduation rate. Increasing college graduation rates to the 34 percent rate of white households narrowed the gap by just 1 percent for black families and 3 percent for Latino households.

    The report is the first in a series of research papers planned on racial wealth inequities by Demos and Brandeis. Later papers will examine college financing, with an emphasis on student debt, and how work and family structure affect disparities between races.

    “We need to think about the continuity of deep structures that advantage and disadvantage families in different ways based on race and ethnicity and gender,” Shapiro said. “The struggle for equality cannot stop with opportunity. It has to dig deep into the structures that return wealth for equal achievement.”

    Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.