Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

One step up and two steps back

By Sylvia Allegretto


With the release of the (mostly) triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF) from the Federal Reserve, it is once again time to look at trends in wealth. The SCF is one of the best sources for data on net worth (assets minus liabilities) in the U.S.

In this post I use the newly released 2013 data to update my previous posts that looked at wealth trends using the 2007 and 2010 SCFs.

The figure below reports changes in wealth for two periods. First, the purple bars are a repeat of the post on the 2010 SCF which reported changes in wealth from 2007-10. That period happened to coincide with the Great Recession. So, the first purple bar reflects the effects of the bursting of the housing bubble and financial debacle followed by the Great Recession, which caused typical families to lose about two-fifths of their total wealth.


The middle purple bar reports the change in cumulative wealth of those on the Forbes 400 list. Forbes estimates the net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans, and it turns out these folks — heavily invested in the stock market, real estate and myriad other financial assets — also lost ground during the recession (-16%).

Finally, the third purple bar breaks out the Walton 6 listed on the Forbes 400. They fared pretty well over the Great Recession as their wealth was up 22% from 2007-10. At the time the company’s then-CFO rightly stated that “ tough times are actually a good time for Wal-Mart .”

I turn now to the green bars in the figure. These represent just-released 2013 data and reflect changes in wealth from 2010-13. Unfortunately, even as the recession is officially far behind us (it ended in June 2009); the benefits of economic growth have yet to reach typical families as they lost another 2% of wealth over this period. Typical family wealth in 2013 was $81,200 — which is about the same as it was in 1992 at $80,200 (all figures in this post are in 2013 dollars).

But things are really looking up for the wealthiest among us, as those on the Forbes 400 saw a 45% rebound in their wealth during 2010-13 and the subset of Walton wealth increased by just over half (51%). The cumulative wealth of the Forbes 400 was about $2.1 trillion, or roughly the same as that held by the entire bottom 60% of American families. The combined worth of the Walton 6 was $145 billion in 2013 — which equaled the total wealth of the entire bottom 43%.

On this side of the Great Recession, after much discussion of inequality, it looks like it is going to be more of the same — typical workers and their families, who paid the price during the downturn,  have gained little during the upturn.