On race, the folk wisdom turns out to be true. An African American family with the same income, family size, and other demographics as a white family will spend about 25 percent more of its income on jewelry, cars, personal care, and apparel. For the average black family, making about $40,000 a year, that amounts to $1,900 more a year than for a comparable white family. To make up the difference, African Americans spend much less on education, health care, entertainment, and home furnishings. (The same is true of Latinos.)
Of course, different ethnic groups could simply have different tastes. Maybe blacks just enjoy jewelry more than whites do. Maybe they buy costlier clothes to deter slights from racist salesclerks. Maybe they spend more on cars for historical reasons, because of the freedom auto travel gave African Americans during the days of segregated trains and buses. Maybe they just aren’t that interested in private colleges or big-screen TVs. Or maybe not. Economists hate unfalsifiable tautologies about differing tastes. They want stories that could apply to anyone.
So the researchers went back to Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term conspicuous consumption. Writing in the much poorer world of 1899, Veblen argued that people spent lavishly on visible goods to prove that they were prosperous. “The motive is emulation—the stimulus of an invidious comparison which prompts us to outdo those with whom we are in the habit of classing ourselves,” he wrote. Along these lines, the economists hypothesized that visible consumption lets individuals show strangers they aren’t poor. Since strangers tend to lump people together by race, the lower your racial group’s income, the more valuable it is to demonstrate your personal buying power.
To test this idea, the economists compared the spending patterns of people of the same race in different states—say, blacks in Alabama versus blacks in Massachusetts, or whites in South Carolina versus whites in California. Sure enough, all else being equal (including one’s own income), an individual spent more of his income on visible goods as his racial group’s income went down. African Americans don’t necessarily have different tastes from whites. They’re just poorer, on average. In places where blacks in general have more money, individual black people feel less pressure to prove their wealth.
The same is true for whites. Controlling for differences in housing costs, an increase of $10,000 in the mean income for white households—about like going from South Carolina to California—leads to a 13 percent decrease in spending on visible goods. “Take a $100,000-a-year person in Alabama and a $100,000 person in Boston,” says Hurst. “The $100,000 person in Alabama does more visible consumption than the $100,000 person in Massachusetts.” That’s why a diamond-crusted Rolex screams “nouveau riche.” It signals that the owner came from a poor group and has something to prove.