Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The few, the proud, the very rich

By Sylvia Allegretto

Much of the current political and popular discourse has focused on inequalities that exist in the U.S. In particular the Occupy movement has brought the huge disparities in wealth to the forefront. There are a few questions floating around about wealth. First, how skewed is the distribution? Second, it is true that the rich have gotten much richer over time? a statement I often heard my Grandma make.

Well, there is a plethora of statistics (e.g. here, here, & here ) out there but here are two. The share of wealth held by the top fifth is about 87.2 percent while the bottom four-fifths share the remaining 12.8 percent of wealthso the Occupiers are correct in their assessment. And, the riches of those in the top 1 percent are about 225 times greater than that held by the typical familyit was 125 times in 1962so, Grandma was correct too.

But, lets look a bit further. The triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) is one of the best sources for data on wealth in the U.S. And, of course the Forbes 400 estimates the worth of the wealthiest amongst usall 400 wouldnt be captured in the SCF. If we look at both the SCF and the Forbes 400 we can glean some interesting insights.

In 2007 (the most recent SCF) the cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was $1.54 trillion or roughly the same amount of wealth held by the entire bottom fifty percent of American families. This is a stunning statistic to be sure.

Upon closer inspection, the Forbes list reveals that six Waltons all children (one daughter-in-law) of Sam or James Bud Walton the founders of Wal-Mart were on the list. The combined worth of the Walton six was $69.7 billion in 2007which equated to the total wealth of the entire bottom thirty percent!

BTW the new 2011 Forbes 400 has the inherited worth of these six Waltons at $93 billion. The 2010 SCF data that is slated for release spring of 2012 will almost certainly show a further widening of the wealth gap given that corporate profits, stocks and CEO pay have all recovered while housing values & equity (the lions share of wealth for average Americans), wages and family incomes have yet to turn around.

These revelations renewed my interest in the inheritance and estate tax debates. Also, didnt I just read somewhere that Wal-Mart is substantially rolling back health care coverage for part-time workers and significantly raising premiums for many full-time staff?

Weve got to get serious about reversing the long term trend of the ever increasing concentration of income and wealth into the hands of a few at the expense of the many. At stake is nothing less than our economy and our democracy.