The Wealth Divide
The Growing Gap in the United States
Between the Rich and the Rest
An Interview with Edward Wolff
Edward Wolff is a professor of economics at New York University. He is the author of Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It, as well as many other books and articles on economic and tax policy. He is managing editor of the Review of Income and Wealth.
In the United States, the richest 1 percent of households owns 38 percent of all wealth.
Multinational Monitor: What is wealth?
Edward Wolff: Wealth is the stuff that people own. The main items are your home, other real estate, any small business you own, liquid assets like savings accounts, CDs and money market funds, bonds, other securities, stocks, and the cash surrender value of any life insurance you have. Those are the total assets someone owns. From that, you subtract debts. The main debt is mortgage debt on your home. Other kinds of debt include consumer loans, auto debt and the like. That difference is referred to as net worth, or just wealth.
MM: Why is it important to think about wealth, as opposed just to income?
Wolff: Wealth provides another dimension of well-being. Two people who have the same income may not be as well off if one person has more wealth. If one person owns his home, for example, and the other person doesn’t, then he is better off.
Wealth — strictly financial savings — provides security to individuals in the event of sickness, job loss or marital separation. Assets provide a kind of safety blanket that people can rely on in case their income gets interrupted.
Wealth is also more directly related to political power. People who have large amounts of wealth can make political contributions. In some cases, they can use that money to run for office themselves, like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
MM: What are the best sources for information on wealth?
Wolff: The best way of measuring wealth is to use household surveys, where interviewers ask households, from a very detailed form, about the assets they own, and the kinds of debts and other liabilities they have run up. Household surveys provide the main source of information on wealth distribution.
Of these household surveys — there are now about five or six surveys that ask wealth questions in the United States — probably the best source is the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances.
They have a special supplement sample that they rely on to provide information about high income households. Wealth turns out to be highly skewed, so that a very small proportion of families owns a very large share of total wealth. Most surveys miss these families. But the Survey of Consumer Finances uses information provided by the Internal Revenue Service to construct a special supplemental sample on high income households, so they can zero in on the high wealth holders.
MM: How do economists measure levels of equality and inequality?
Wolff: The most common measure used, and the most understandable is: what share of total wealth is owned by the richest households, typically the top 1 percent. In the United States, in the last survey year, 1998, the richest 1 percent of households owned 38 percent of all wealth.
This is the most easily understood measure.
There is also another measure called the Gini coefficient. It measures the concentration of wealth at different percentile levels, and does an overall computation. It is an index that goes from zero to one, one being the most unequal. Wealth inequality in the United States has a Gini coefficient of .82, which is pretty close to the maximum level of inequality you can have.
MM: What have been the trends of wealth inequality over the last 25 years?
Wolff: We have had a fairly sharp increase in wealth inequality dating back to 1975 or 1976.
Prior to that, there was a protracted period when wealth inequality fell in this country, going back almost to 1929. So you have this fairly continuous downward trend from 1929, which of course was the peak of the stock market before it crashed, until just about the mid-1970s. Since then, things have really turned around, and the level of wealth inequality today is almost double what it was in the mid-1970s.
Income inequality has also risen. Most people date this rise to the early 1970s, but it hasn’t gone up nearly as dramatically as wealth inequality.
MM: What portion of the wealth is owned by the upper groups?
Wolff: The top 5 percent own more than half of all wealth.
In 1998, they owned 59 percent of all wealth. Or to put it another way, the top 5 percent had more wealth than the remaining 95 percent of the population, collectively.
The top 20 percent owns over 80 percent of all wealth. In 1998, it owned 83 percent of all wealth.
This is a very concentrated distribution.
MM: Where does that leave the bottom tiers?
Wolff: The bottom 20 percent basically have zero wealth. They either have no assets, or their debt equals or exceeds their assets. The bottom 20 percent has typically accumulated no savings.
A household in the middle — the median household — has wealth of about $62,000. $62,000 is not insignificant, but if you consider that the top 1 percent of households’ average wealth is $12.5 million, you can see what a difference there is in the distribution.
MM: What kind of distribution of wealth is there for the different asset components?
Wolff: Things are even more concentrated if you exclude owner-occupied housing. It is nice to own a house and it provides all kinds of benefits, but it is not very liquid. You can’t really dispose of it, because you need some place to live.
The top 1 percent of families hold half of all non-home wealth.