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Conspicuous Consumption and Race

  • Kerwin Kofi Charles

    (University of Chicago and NBER.)

  • Erik Hurst

    (University of Chicago and NBER.)

  • Nikolai Roussanov

    (University of Pennsylvania.)

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. These differences exist among virtually all subpopulations, are relatively constant over time, and are economically large. Although 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 as a costly indicator of a household's economic position. Using merged data on race- and state-level income, we demonstrate that a key prediction of the status-signaling model-that visible consumption should be declining in reference group income-is strongly borne out in the data 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. (c) 2009 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology..

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Article provided by MIT Press in its journal Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Volume (Year): 124 (2009)
Issue (Month): 2 (May)
Pages: 425-467

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Handle: RePEc:tpr:qjecon:v:124:y:2009:i:2:p:425-467
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  1. David M. Cutler & Edward L. Glaeser & Jacob L. Vigdor, 1997. "The Rise and Decline of the American Ghetto," NBER Working Papers 5881, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  2. Robert Barsky & John Bound & Kerwin Charles & Joseph Lupton, 2001. "Accounting for the Black-White Wealth Gap: A Nonparametric Approach," NBER Working Papers 8466, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Francis Bloch & Vijayendra Rao & Sonalde Desai, 2004. "Wedding Celebrations as Conspicuous Consumption: Signaling Social Status in Rural India," Journal of Human Resources, University of Wisconsin Press, vol. 39(3).
  4. Gary S. Becker & Kevin M. Murphy & Ivan Werning, 2005. "The Equilibrium Distribution of Income and the Market for Status," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 113(2), pages 282-310, April.
  5. Erik Hurst & Ming Ching Luoh & Frank P. Stafford, 1998. "The Wealth Dynamics of American Families, 1984-94," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 29(1), pages 267-338.
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  7. Clark, Andrew E. & Oswald, Andrew J., 1994. "Satisfaction and comparison income," CEPREMAP Working Papers (Couverture Orange) 9408, CEPREMAP.
  8. Kerwin Kofi Charles & Erik Hurst, 2002. "The Transition To Home Ownership And The Black-White Wealth Gap," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 84(2), pages 281-297, May.
  9. Munnell, Alicia H. & Geoffrey M. B. Tootell & Lynn E. Browne & James McEneaney, 1996. "Mortgage Lending in Boston: Interpreting HMDA Data," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(1), pages 25-53, March.
  10. McBride, Michael, 2001. "Relative-income effects on subjective well-being in the cross-section," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 45(3), pages 251-278, July.
  11. Corneo, Giacomo & Jeanne, Olivier, 1998. "Social organization, status, and savings behavior," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 70(1), pages 37-51, October.
  12. Ireland, Norman J., 1994. "On limiting the market for status signals," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 53(1), pages 91-110, January.
  13. Ed Hopkins & Tatiana Kornienko, 2004. "Running to Keep in the Same Place: Consumer Choice as a Game of Status," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 94(4), pages 1085-1107, September.
  14. Bagwell, Laurie Simon & Bernheim, B Douglas, 1996. "Veblen Effects in a Theory of Conspicuous Consumption," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 86(3), pages 349-73, June.
  15. Cole, Harold L & Mailath, George J & Postlewaite, Andrew, 1992. "Social Norms, Savings Behavior, and Growth," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 100(6), pages 1092-1125, December.
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