Family Finances

Foundations of a New Wealth Agenda: A Research Primer on Wealth Building for All

November 30, 2021  • Financial Security Program, Sheida Isabel Elmi & Bianca Sofia Lopez

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In The State of Financial Security 2020, the Aspen Financial Security Program identified the urgent need for a new wealth agenda in the United States, grounded in the perspective that

“the ultimate goal of the financial security field is not to help families merely better manage scarcity, but to truly create conditions of security and well-being that will enable full participation, agency, and dignity—not just in our economy, but in our democracy.”

Personal wealth—the savings and assets a family owns, minus their debts—is a central component of household financial security. It is a requirement for the well-being of families with lower incomes just as it is for those with higher incomes. One’s own financial resources protect against short-term financial shocks and afford an individual the freedom to not simply dream about the future, but also to take the necessary steps to seize it.

In pursuit of an inclusive and prosperous nation, we cannot dismiss individuals and families with lower incomes as being somehow not ready or suited for building personal and intergenerational wealth. Families with little to no wealth and those with low or moderate income aspire to build wealth just as those with higher wealth and higher earnings do, in part because having wealth both represents and materially provides financial security and freedom. Dismissing these goals for families because of their lower earnings or lower wealth holdings limits economic growth, productivity, social cohesion, and the health of our democracy. Challenging long-held assumptions about who can and should build wealth and how households can build wealth is the first step to expanding opportunities for families to share in prosperity.

In this foundational publication, designed to be a first step toward a new wealth agenda, we examine the state of household wealth building in the US today through the lived experience of families with low or moderate incomes. This report synthesizes and builds on insights surfaced by the members of Aspen FSP’s Consumer Insights Collaborative to articulate why personal wealth matters so much to all people and families in America; what it takes to be able to build sustainable wealth; the barriers facing wealth building for low- and moderate-income households; and the kinds of policies, products, tools, and institutions that have helped. Based on the current systems of wealth building in the US, we conclude with high-level observations that identify where structural solutions are urgently needed. In forthcoming papers, we will more explicitly explore specific solutions, including new wealth pathways and vehicles.

This paper was developed as part of the Global Inclusive Growth Partnership, a collaboration between the Aspen Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. It was also developed with generous support from the BlackRock Charitable Fund, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Prudential Financial.

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How do our current financial systems overlook wealth building for lower-income households? Current benefits, retirement, and debt systems widen #WealthGaps. A new wealth agenda by @AspenFSP presents why wealth building matters for all: