This report updates a report we authored in 2015 that compared the billionaires showcased in the glossy pages of the annual Forbes 400 list to the rest of the country’s financial condition, as captured in the triennial Survey of Consumer Finances by the Federal Reserve. The latest data from these two sources became available less than a month before we published this report and have been updated to uniform 2017 dollars.
Among the big findings from this year’s study: Just three people — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet — own more wealth than the bottom half of the country combined. In the first edition of Billionaire Bonanza, published in December 2015, we pointed out that twenty people — a group could fit on a Gulfstream 650 luxury jet — had as much wealth as the bottom half of the country. Now the billionaires with as much wealth as America’s bottom half could fit in the cockpit.
How extreme has the concentration of wealth at the tippity top of the economic spectrum become? The Forbes 400 together own $2.68 trillion in wealth, more than the GDP of Britain, the world’s fifth richest country. The top 400 also own more wealth than the bottom 64 percent of the country combined.
On the other end of the spectrum we find Underwater Nation, the portion of the country with zero or negative wealth. About one in five Americans live in Underwater Nation, a proportion that grows higher for black families (30 percent) and for Latinos (27 percent).
Of course, an understanding of the growing economic divide has, on its own, limited value. As public scholars, our mission is to inspire change. So we do more in the new Billionaire Bonanza than tally up America’s grandest fortunes. We offer a host of solutions that would get the nation off the path we’re on and toward greater equality and fairness.
This report comes as Congress considers passing the Trump tax cuts, a plan that would surely increase the wealth divide. It also comes in the wake of the Paradise Papers, a sensational new release of documents that showcases the pervasive impact of offshore tax shelters on America’s wealthiest households and corporations.
We know for sure that the numbers we publish in our report understate the wealth of those at the top since money hiding in tax shelters is, by its nature, hidden. We’re hoping that our report will inspire activists, academics, lawmakers, and citizens to work for change.
For more on the divide between the Forbes 400 and the rest of America, watch this video.
Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base. Josh Hoxie directs the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at the Institute for Policy Studies and co-edits Inequality.org.
For media inquiries about the new Billionaire Bonanza report, contact Jessicah Pierre: Jessicah@ips-dc.org