Economics, Culture, Governance Immigration
October 19th, 2023 2 Minute Read Press Release

New Report: In America’s Melting Pot, Who Pays for Reparations?

Immigration is shrinking the population share plausibly eligible to pay a debt for slavery

NEW YORK, NY — Reparations for slavery, while not new, have gained political momentum in the aftermath of the 2020 racial reckoning. In California, a reparations task force recently recommended that eligible black residents receive payments totaling $1.2 million each; in Chicago, the suburb of Evanston committed to paying $10 million to its black residents in reparations for discriminatory housing policy.  Proponents argue that up to $15 trillion, the cost of closing the black-white wealth gap, might be necessary to make up for slavery’s harms. 

But these initiatives are not without pushback. Six in 10 Californians recently reported it would be unfair for today’s taxpayers to pay for historical wrongs, a sentiment raising a critical question that’s been under-explored in the reparations conversation: who pays? 

In a new Manhattan Institute report, fellow Charles Fain Lehman explores what share of the population is plausibly eligible to pay for reparations for slavery, particularly in the context of America’s melting-pot nature. He does so under the premise that reparations are a form of compensation for historical injustice, and that it would be unjust to request payment from people whose ancestors arrived after such harms were committed. Using demographic modeling techniques, Lehman finds 70% of nonblack Americans today have ancestors who arrived after the end of the Civil War. Many of these more recent arrivals are at the top of America’s economic distribution, and the recent-arrival share of top wealth earners is likely to keep growing. This means the base of people and wealth which could plausibly be taxed for reparations is shrinking and will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.  

Some have argued private institutions like businesses and schools should foot the bill. However, Lehman argues the U.S. government is the only entity with sufficient capital, or access thereto, to fund reparations payments—leaving the burden to fall inevitably on taxpayers. This leaves those in favor of reparations for slavery with an uncomfortable conclusion: reparations payments conducted through public funding will entail taking money from tens of millions of people who are not plausibly responsible for slavery. 

This, Lehman argues, is a problem not just for reparations, but for arguments from historical injustice more generally. Policies like affirmative action are often premised on undoing some past wrong. But as America continues to diversify, the number of people to whom those wrongs can be attributed will continue to shrink—making those policies increasingly divisive and increasingly a losing political proposition. 

Click here to view the full report. 


Are you interested in supporting the Manhattan Institute’s public-interest research and journalism? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and its scholars’ work are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).