The New American Aristocracy
It is in fact the top 0.1 percent who have been the big winners in the growing concentration of wealth over the past half century. According to the UC Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, the 160,000 or so households in that group held 22 percent of America’s wealth in 2012, up from 10 percent in 1963. If you’re looking for the kind of money that can buy elections, you’ll find it inside the top 0.1 percent alone.
A Tale of Three Classes (Figure 1):
The 9.9 percent hold most of the wealth in the United States.
Every piece of the pie picked up by the 0.1 percent, in relative terms, had to come from the people below. But not everyone in the 99.9 percent gave up a slice. Only those in the bottom 90 percent did. At their peak, in the mid-1980s, people in this group held 35 percent of the nation’s wealth. Three decades later that had fallen 12 points—exactly as much as the wealth of the 0.1 percent rose.
As of 2016, it took $1.2 million in net worth to make it into the 9.9 percent; $2.4 million to reach the group’s median; and $10 million to get into the top 0.9 percent. (And if you’re not there yet, relax: Our club is open to people who are on the right track and have the right attitude.) “We are the 99 percent” sounds righteous, but it’s a slogan, not an analysis. The families at our end of the spectrum wouldn’t know what to do with a pitchfork.
We are also mostly, but not entirely, white. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, African Americans represent 1.9 percent of the top 10th of households in wealth; Hispanics, 2.4 percent; and all other minorities, including Asian and multiracial individuals, 8.8 percent—even though those groups together account for 35 percent of the total population.
Let’s suppose that you start off right in the middle of the American wealth distribution. How high would you have to jump to make it into the 9.9 percent? In financial terms, the measurement is easy and the trend is unmistakable. In 1963, you would have needed to multiply your wealth six times. By 2016, you would have needed to leap twice as high—increasing your wealth 12-fold—to scrape into our group. If you boldly aspired to reach the middle of our group rather than its lower edge, you’d have needed to multiply your wealth by a factor of 25. On this measure, the 2010s look much like the 1920s.
If you are starting at the median for people of color, you’ll want to practice your financial pole-vaulting. The Institute for Policy Studies calculated that, setting aside money invested in “durable goods” such as furniture and a family car, the median black family had net wealth of $1,700 in 2013, and the median Latino family had $2,000, compared with $116,800 for the median white family. A 2015 study in Boston found that the wealth of the median white family there was $247,500, while the wealth of the median African American family was $8. That is not a typo. That’s two grande cappuccinos. That and another 300,000 cups of coffee will get you into the 9.9 percent.