We equate wealth with “net worth,” the sum total of your assets minus liabilities. Assets can include everything from an owned personal residence and cash in savings accounts to investments in stocks and bonds, real estate, and retirement accounts. Liabilities cover what a household owes: a car loan, credit card balance, student loan, mortgage, or any other bill yet to be paid. In the United States, wealth inequality runs even more pronounced than income inequality.
The most visible indicator of wealth inequality in America today may be the Forbes magazine list of the nation’s 400 richest. In 2018, the three men at the top of that list — Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and investor Warren Buffett — held combined fortunes worth more than the total wealth of the poorest half of Americans.
In 1982, the “poorest” American listed on the first annual Forbes magazine list of America’s richest 400 had a net worth of $210 million in today’s dollars. The average member of that first list had a net worth of $590 million. In 2018, rich Americans needed net worth of $2.1 billion to enter the Forbes 400, and the average member held a net $7.2 billion, over 10 times the 1982 average after adjusting for inflation.
Inequality is skyrocketing even within the Forbes 400 list of America’s richest. In today’s dollars, the net worth of the richest member of the Forbes 400 has soared from $5 billion in 1982 to $160 billion in 2018, far outpacing the gains at either the Forbes 400 entry point or average. Since 1982, just seven men have held this spot: shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig (1982), oil executive Gordon Getty (1983-1984), Walmart founder Sam Walton (1985-1988), media company owner John Kluge (1989-1991), Microsoft founder Bill Gates (1992-2017, except 1993), investor Warren Buffett (1993), and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (2018).
Over the past three decades, America’s most affluent families have added to their net worth, while those on the bottom have dipped into “negative wealth,” meaning the value of their debts exceeds the value of their assets.
Over the past century, the share of America’s wealth held by the nation’s wealthiest has changed markedly. That share peaked in the late 1920s, right before the Great Depression, then fell by more than half over the next three decades. But the equalizing trends of the mid 20th century have now been almost completely undone. At the top of the American economic summit, the richest of the nation’s rich now hold as large a wealth share as they did in the 1920s.
The rich don’t just have more wealth than everyone else. The bulk of their wealth comes from different — and more lucrative — asset sources. America’s top 1 percent, for instance, holds more than half the national wealth invested in stocks and mutual funds. Most of the wealth of Americans in the bottom 90 percent comes from their principal residences, the asset category that took the biggest hit during the Great Recession. These Americans also hold almost three-quarters of America’s debt.
The median Black family, with just over $3,500, owns just 2 percent of the wealth of the nearly $147,000 the median White family owns. The median Latino family, with just over $6,500, owns just 4 percent of the wealth of the median White family. Put differently, the median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.
Families that have zero or even “negative” wealth (meaning the value of their debts exceeds the value of their assets) live on the edge, just one minor economic setback away from tragedy. Black and Latino families are much more likely to be in this precarious situation. The proportion of Black families with zero or negative wealth rose by 8.5 percent to 37 percent between 1983 and 2016. The proportion of Latino families with zero or negative net worth declined by 19 percent over the past 30 years but is still more than twice as high as the rate for Whites.
As with total wealth, homeownership is heavily skewed towards White families. In 2016, 72 percent of White families owned their home, compared to just 44 percent of Black families. Between 1983 and 2016, Latino homeownership increased by a dramatic nearly 40 percent, but it remains far below the rate for Whites, at just 45 percent.