To get a sense of the scale, consider that the United States budget this year is $4.7 trillion.
Of course, varying any critical assumption can add or subtract billions or trillions of dollars.
Thomas Craemer, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Connecticut, used the same starting point — 40 acres and a mule — but a different method in a study published last year. He used the current average price of agricultural land and figured that 40 acres of farmland and buildings would amount to roughly $123,000. If all of the four million slaves counted in the 1860 census had been able to take advantage of that offer, it would have totaled more than $486 billion today — or about $16,200 for each descendant of slaves.
What form would payment take?
Compensation programs can take many forms. In the United States, after a congressional study, people of Japanese descent who were forced into internment camps during World War II received $20,000 in 1988 and a formal apology.
Since 1952, Germany has paid more than $70 billion in reparations through various programs, primarily to Jewish victims of the Nazi regime, and continues to deliver hundreds of millions of dollars each year. Payments vary from a lump sum distributed to individuals to a monthly pension based on years working in a slave labor camp. Money is also given to organizations to cover home care for older survivors or for grants. A small portion goes for research, education and documentation.
A reparations program in the United States could likewise adopt a single method or several at once. Families could get a one-time check, receive vouchers for medical insurance or college, or have access to a trust fund to finance a business or a home. Mr. Darity argues that “for both substantive and symbolic reasons, some important component must be direct payment to eligible recipients.”
Other scholars have emphasized different features. Roy L. Brooks, a law professor at the University of San Diego and the author of “Atonement and Forgiveness: A New Model for Black Reparations,” has reservations about what he calls the “settlement model,” a legalistic approach that looks backward to compensate victims for demonstrable financial losses. He prefers what he calls the “atonement model,” emphasizing longer-term investments in education, housing and businesses that build up wealth.
What would the economic impact be?
According to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the median wealth of black households is $16,000, compared with $163,000 for whites. Reparations are not likely to eliminate the racial wealth gap, but could narrow it somewhat. Low-income families, with the fewest assets, would benefit the most.