Your odds of becoming a millionaire? It depends on your race

Last Updated Jan 25, 2016 8:53 AM EST

In America, becoming a millionaire is a quintessential sign of material success.

While it may be a goal that many aspire to, it turns out that one's likelihood of achieving entry into the millionaire club is tied to at least one factor that Americans have no control over: race.

The odds are strikingly lower of becoming a millionaire for blacks and Hispanics than they are for whites and Asians, according to an analysis of the Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 and 2013 from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. That's not to say that black and Hispanics can't become millionaires -- after all, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan are among those on the Forbes Billionaire list -- but the research points toward some of the issues that minorities can face when trying to build wealth.

How does that line up with the deeply held American belief that anyone willing to work hard can get ahead?

"It's very jarring," said William Emmons, an economist at the St. Louis Fed who has been studying the demographics of wealth. He added that, while he and fellow researchers thought they'd find racial disparities, they were surprised at the starkness of the results.

"It's very difficult in the face of these trends to sustain" that belief in the American dream, he said. "It's the birth lottery."

Overall, about one out of 10 American families were millionaires in the 2010 and 2013 surveys. (The Federal Reserve defines a family as a single person or couple living with other people who are financially interdependent.) But when the researchers broke it down by race, they found that 12.9 percent of Asians were millionaires, and 12.5 percent of whites. Hispanics and blacks? Only 1.4 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively.

Why blacks and Hispanics have lower odds than whites and Asians might be found in the intersection of several complex issues, ranging from discrimination and housing to the challenges of lower pay and smaller bank accounts. Blacks and Hispanics have lower household wealth and income than white families, which may pose a greater hurdle for their families to jump over to reach the ranks of the wealthy.

"There's a big debate going on not just on the racial wealth gap but, more generally, how important is inherited wealth?" Emmons said. "I tend on the side of saying it's not as important as you think."

For instance, wealth typically doesn't last more than a few generations, suggesting that families over time see a reversion to the mean when it comes to their assets, he said. The flip side of that argument is that poverty in one generation doesn't mean the next is destined to remain poor. The reasons aren't yet totally understood, which is giving rise to new research from economists into the intersection of wealth and demographics.

"There is evidence of continuing discrimination, and it happens in schooling and employment, and we know just some of the recent issues with interactions with police," he said. "We know there are racial differences, and there's no question that has some role to play."

Earlier research by Emmons and his colleagues found that college-educated blacks and Hispanics were much financially worse off after the Great Recession, while whites and Asians didn't see as large a hit. One possible reason: Black neighborhoods haven't seen the same type of housing recovery in the post-recession years as white areas, which means black homeowners (many of whom may have college degrees) have seen their wealth wither since 2008.

Race isn't the only factor that makes a difference in a person's chances of being a millionaire. Education and age matter, too.

It may be no surprise that those over 62 have a larger chance of being millionaires, given the decades they've had to accumulate wealth. Across all races, there is a one in roughly six chance that someone over 62 will have assets of more than $1 million.

Education, unlike race and age, can be viewed as the result of an individual's hard work and achievement (or a wealthy family's ability to pay for SAT tutors and tuition, of course). Americans with college and post-graduate degrees had much higher chances of being millionaires than the average citizen, the researchers found.

Only 4.2 percent of Americans with high-school educations have climbed into the millionaire club, while that jumps to 13.5 percent of people with college degrees. Yet the real jackpot can be found in earning post-graduate degrees, given that about 32.8 percent of that group have wealth of more than $1 million.

"Accumulating wealth on the order of $1 million or more is exclusively a college graduate phenomenon in terms of odds," Emmons noted. "People without college degrees are extremely unlikely to accumulate $1 million."