By Ray Boshara, Director
When my hard-to-impress, no-nonsense supervisor of many years, St. Louis Fed Senior Vice President Robert Hopkins, would sit me down for my year-end review, he’d reliably ask, “Boshara, the breadth and depth of the research reports, events, speeches, op-eds, White House and Hill meetings, testimonies and national media interviews are impressive. But, can you quantify what difference they all made? Have they really had any impact?”
For a Center focused on research, policy and ideas, it was always a tough question—and the right one, especially for the metrics- and constituent-focused St. Louis Fed.
Well, I find myself asking that question again as we “sunset” the Center for Household Financial Stability and prepare to launch … Sorry, but for that exciting news, you’ll have to wait another day or two.
I’d like to take up Robert’s challenge as it applies to the 10 years that have transpired since former Center Lead Economist William R. Emmons and I first conceived the Center to, as we put it, “examine the status, impact and future of family balance sheets in the U.S.”
You may be better judges than we are on what difference we made in people’s lives and wealth, but let me offer our 10 proudest accomplishments over the last decade.
Let me first be clear, though, that none of this would have been possible without the contributions of the Center’s outstanding prior and current teams. In addition to the seminal work of Emmons, we recognize the foundational contributions of Bryan J. Noeth, Lowell R. Ricketts and Ana Hernández Kent, all of our past and current research fellows, and the leadership of the St. Louis Fed that made this Center even possible, especially President Jim Bullard and former Executive Vice President Julie L. Stackhouse.
So, for Robert and for all of you, here’s what we’re most proud of:
Following the Great Recession—a “balance sheet recession”—we launched the Center around the idea of looking proactively at the full balance sheet (assets and liabilities), a silo-breaking, novel idea at the time.
We pioneered a demographic approach to understanding wealth inequality. This includes publishing The Demographics of Wealth reports and organizing several research symposia on how powerfully one’s age or birth year, race and ethnicity, and education (including parental education) predict wealth. Our work on the declining economic fortunes of millennials (the “lost” generation) was widely cited; we’ve published new research on the gender wealth gap as well.
Among our most consequential (and unsettling) research findings was documenting how the wealth of white families with college degrees soared between 1992 and 2013, while the wealth of Black families with college degrees plummeted. These findings were unpacked at a symposium that featured research commissioned by the Center.
Focusing more thoroughly on the debt side of the balance sheet, we launched (in partnership with the Private Debt Project) the three-part “Tipping Points” research symposia to examine when household debt “tips” from being wealth-building and productive to wealth-stripping and destructive.
We were invited to testify twice before the U.S. Congress, as well as before the Ferguson Commission in Missouri, about the importance of family wealth in promoting economic mobility and racial economic equity. We also were invited to brief officials from the White House, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and other entities about our research and ideas.
We took deep dives on key balance sheet issues—such as liquidity, household debt and housing security—through our publications In the Balance, Housing Market Perspectives and The Quarterly Debt Monitor.
We published two op-eds in The Washington Post (one in 2014, the other in 2017) on the racial wealth gap, leading to speaking and policy advising opportunities nationwide; we were also frequently cited in our nation’s leading newspapers on what’s driving wealth inequality in the U.S.
We launched The Real State of Family Wealth, a novel quarterly report on the overall state of family wealth in the U.S. This tool is poised to capture the effects of COVID-19 on wealth inequality and our nation’s progress on addressing racial, generational and educational wealth gaps.
In partnership with the Financial Security Program of The Aspen Institute, we launched the “Future of Building Wealth” initiative. Successes of this initiative include our forthcoming book, Brief Essays on the Best Ideas to Build Wealth—For Everyone.
Friends and colleagues, it has been a great run and a true honor to have played a leadership role in launching and leading the Center over the last several years. Hopefully, Robert is impressed by now, and you’ve seen our work as valuable, too.
Watch for an announcement later this week sharing how our work at the St. Louis Fed is evolving to respond to some of the most pressing challenges of our current economic environment. We’re very excited for our next chapter to unfold!