Conspicuous Consumption and Race
Kerwin Kofi Charles
University of Michigan - Department of Economics & Ford School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
University of Chicago - Booth School of Business; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
Nikolai L. Roussanov
University of Pennsylvania - The Wharton School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
NBER Working Paper No. w13392
Using nationally representative data on consumption, we show that Blacks and Hispanics devote larger shares of their expenditure bundles to visible goods (clothing, jewelry, and cars) than do comparable Whites. We demonstrate that these differences exist among virtually all sub-populations, that they are relatively constant over time, and that they are economically large. While racial differences in utility preference parameters might account for a portion of these consumption differences, we emphasize instead a model of status seeking in which conspicuous consumption is used to reflect a household's economic position relative to a reference group. Using merged data on race and state level income, we demonstrate that a key prediction of our model -- that visible consumption should be declining in mean reference group income -- is strongly borne out in the data separately for each racial group. Moreover, we show that accounting for differences in reference group income characteristics explains most of the racial difference in visible consumption. We conclude with an assessment of the role of conspicuous consumption in explaining lower spending by racial minorities on items likes health and education, as well as their lower rates of wealth accumulation.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 65working papers series
Date posted: September 14, 2007
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