What Does Half of the U.S. Population Have in Common With the 20 Richest People? - Pacific Standard

What Does Half of the U.S. Population Have in Common With the 20 Richest People?

They hold the same amount of wealth.
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Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill &  Melinda Gates Foundation, participates in a panel discussion during the  Financial Inclusion Forum on December 1, 2015. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, participates in a panel discussion during the Financial Inclusion Forum on December 1, 2015. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

We all know that wealth is unequally distributed in the United States. But, the results of a new study by the Institute for Policy Studies, authored by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie, are still eye popping.

Collins and Hoxie find that the wealthiest 0.1 percent of U.S.  households, an estimated 115,000 households with a net worth starting at $20 million, own more than 20 percent of total U.S. household wealth. That is up from seven percent in the 1970s. This group owns approximately the same total wealth as the bottom 90 percent of U.S. households.

Moving up the wealth ladder, they calculate that the top 400 people—yes, people, not households, each with a net worth starting at $1.7 billion, have more wealth than the bottom 61 percent of the U.S.  population, an estimated 70 million households, or 194 million people.

Finally, we get to the top 20 people, those sitting at the pinnacle of the U.S. wealth distribution. As the authors explain:

The wealthiest 20 individuals in the United States today hold more wealth than the bottom half of the U.S. population combined. These 20 super wealthy — a group small enough to fly together on one Gulfstream G650 private jet — have as much wealth as the 152 million people who live in the 57 million households that make up the bottom half of the U.S. population.

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Although obvious, it is still worth emphasizing, as Collins and Hoxie do, that great wealth translates into great power, the power to shape economic policies. And, in a self-reinforcing cycle, the resulting policies, by design, create new opportunities for the wealthy to capture more wealth. Think: free trade agreements, privatization policies, tax policy, and labor and environmental laws and regulations.

Oh yes, also think presidential politics. As a New York Times study points out:

They are overwhelmingly white, rich, older and male.... Across a sprawling country, they reside in an archipelago of wealth, exclusive neighborhoods dotting a handful of cities and towns.... Now they are deploying their vast wealth in the political arena, providing almost half of all the seed money raised to support Democratic and Republican presidential candidates. Just 158 families, along with companies they own or control, contributed $176 million in the first phase of the campaign, a New York Times investigation found.

And yet, one still hears some people say that class analysis has no role to play in explaining the dynamics of the U.S. political economy. Makes you wonder who pays their salary.

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This story originally appeared on Sociological Images, a Pacific Standard partner site, as “What Does Half of the U.S. Population Have in Common With the 20 Richest People?"

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