The perception that people often succumb to misfortune and bad decision-making after suddenly receiving large amounts of cash isn’t based in fact, researchers said in a report published Thursday by the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank.
That means potential reparations payouts to Black Americans are unlikely to result in reckless spending, financial ruin and reduced labor productivity, the report’s authors wrote after undertaking a review of prior research concerning consumer behavior after lottery windfalls and inheritances, as well as more minor cash transfers through tax refunds and guaranteed-income programs.
“There’s what we really describe as kind of an urban myth … that people who receive lottery winnings squander the money very quickly,” reparations scholar William “Sandy” Darity, a Duke University professor of public policy and economist who co-authored the report, said in an interview. “The best available evidence indicates that that’s not the case.”
Whether Black residents and descendants of enslaved people in the U.S. are owed reparative payments has been debated for centuries. But as the country has grown more economically unequal while a stubborn racial wealth gap persists, the reparations movement has picked up traction.
In California, a first-of-its-kind state task force on reparations approved a slate of recommendations for lawmakers this month that, if implemented through legislation, would potentially provide hundreds of billions of dollars in reparative monetary payments to Black Californians to address harms caused by factors including racial health disparities, housing discrimination and mass incarceration. San Francisco, which has its own reparations task force, is also considering one-time reparative payments of $5 million for eligible people.
Read more: California task force approves sweeping reparations potentially worth billions of dollars
Still, detractors say that granting reparations to Black Americans — as was done for Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II and, on a state level, for survivors who owned property in the town of Rosewood, Fla., before a race massacre destroyed it — is unwise.
Some argue that giving people reparative payments without requiring certain parameters or personal-finance courses could result in irresponsible spending behavior, or that reparations proposals are themselves racist in suggesting that Black people need “handouts.”
“‘One of the important things that lottery winners do with the money is that they frequently set up trust accounts or the equivalent for their children or their grandchildren.’”
The authors of the Roosevelt Institute report, for their part, said the assumption that Black Americans would be unable to handle sudden windfalls is rooted in racism — noting the racial wealth gap wasn’t created through “defective” spending habits but through policies that pumped money into white households, including unequal land distribution and subsidies for homebuyers.
“Widely held, inaccurate, and racist beliefs about dysfunctional financial behavior of Black Americans as the foundation for racial economic inequality leads to a conclusion that monetary reparations will be ineffective in eliminating the gap,” they wrote. “According to this perspective, if eligible Black Americans do not change their financial mindset and behavior after receiving financial reparations, the act of restitution will be empty.”
How people spend lottery winnings and inheritances
Even so, there’s not really “any carefully drawn-out study of what has happened to folks who have received reparations payments,” Darity said. It’s “impossible to understand” the impacts of such programs, because there haven’t historically been “systems in place that give money directly to individuals” — allowing “anecdotal cynicism and urban mythology” to drive the narrative, the report’s authors wrote.
“The best that we could do is try to think about other types of instances in which people have received windfalls where there has been some follow-up on what the consequences have been,” Darity said.
To see how people really react when they’re granted new amounts of money, the authors examined outcomes both from people who had received “major” windfalls — ones that immediately and majorly change a person’s wealth status, like winning the lottery — and “minor” windfalls, or those that affect a person’s income but don’t meaningfully shift their wealth status, like the stimulus checks doled out earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Darity, who directs Duke University’s Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, worked alongside the report’s lead author, Katherine Rodgers, a former research assistant at the Cook Center who currently works as a senior associate at the consulting firm Kroll, as well as Sydney A. Grissom, an analyst for BlackRock. Lucas Hubbard, an associate in research at the Cook Center, was also an author of the report.
They found that while a person’s behavior can vary based on the windfall amount and how it’s framed to the recipient, as well as their previous economic status, their reactions tend to buck stereotypes.
For example, only 11% of lottery winners quit their job in the findings of one 1987 study that examined 576 lottery winners across 12 states — and none of the people who got less than $50,000 left work, according to the Roosevelt Institute report. However, people were more likely to quit their jobs if they won a sum worth $1 million, had less education, were making under $100,000 a year, and hadn’t been in their job for more than four years.
Studies of lottery winners in other countries have found similarly muted labor responses, the report said. A separate U.S. study from 1993 of the labor effects on people who had received inheritances ranging from $25,000 to $150,000 or more also found that only a “small but statistically significant percentage of heirs left their jobs after receiving their inheritance,” with workers most likely to leave their jobs if they got a big payout.
But it’s still “less than what the stereotype would say,” Hubbard said in an interview: 4.6% of individuals quit their jobs after receiving a small inheritance of less than $25,000, compared to 18.2% of workers who got an inheritance of more than $150,000, he noted.
Instead, studies have shown that people who get windfalls may be more likely to become self-employed, participate in financial markets, save, and spend money on necessary goods like housing and transportation, the report’s authors wrote.
“One of the important things that lottery winners do with the money,” Darity said, “is that they frequently set up trust accounts or the equivalent for their children or their grandchildren.”
Small windfalls, including those offered through monthly checks from guaranteed-income pilot programs, have also been shown to be used for essentials like food and utilities without negative effects on employment. The framing of the money received can also have an effect on how it’s spent, the authors said: People who get a payout from bequests or life insurance tend to have more negative emotions about the money and will use it for more “utilitarian” purposes, according to one 2009 study.
From the archives (March 2021): Employment rose among those in California universal-income experiment, study finds
Reparations wouldn’t unleash ‘flagrant spending,’ researchers say
Despite their findings, “windfalls are not magical panaceas for all financial woes,” the authors emphasized.
For example, a 2011 study cited in the report found that among people who were already in precarious financial positions, lottery winnings delayed, rather than prevented, an eventual bankruptcy filing. Another report from 2006 found that “large inheritances led to disproportionately less saving,” the researchers noted in the Roosevelt Institute report.
“Research over the past two decades has demonstrated that their bounties are not limitless, and, crucially, that informed stewardship of received assets is still necessary (albeit, not always sufficient) to achieve and maximize long-term financial success,” the authors wrote.
But they added that reparations, particularly if “framed not as handouts but rather as reparative payments” to Black Americans, would not unleash “flagrant spending on nonessential goods” based on studies on windfalls, and could instead improve recipients’ emotional well-being and financial stability.
“Of course, the merits of making such payments should not be assessed solely on the basis of the anticipated economic effects,” the authors said. “Moreover, using the absence of evidence of this type as a justification for delaying reparative payments, such as those to Black descendants of American slavery, is inconsistent with the fact that other groups previously have received similar payments in the wake of atrocities and tragedies.”
From the archives (January 2023): How to pay for reparations in California? ‘Swollen’ wealth could replace ‘stolen’ wealth through taxes.
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