Bruce Bartlett

Recently, I discussed new IRS data showing that the share of total income going to the richest 400 individuals has increased. However, income is an imprecise measure of well-being. That is better measured by wealth. A new study by the Federal Reserve sheds important light on the distribution of wealth in the United States.

Every three years, the Federal Reserve does a survey of wealth distribution, known as the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), which is considered the most accurate data we have on this issue. One reason is that the Fed makes a special effort to get a statistically significant sample of the wealthy. Such people guard their privacy, and it is notoriously difficult to get accurate data on their assets and liabilities.

Forbes Magazine makes a heroic effort each year to calculate the wealth of the 400 richest Americans, using public sources. But such data are at best educated guesses, given the complexity of family wealth, which may be spread around various members in ways hard to determine, as well as questions about what constitutes ownership when significant assets may be tied up in trust funds.

Interestingly, the Fed survey deliberately excludes those on the Forbes 400 list. But the result is that a significant percentage of wealth is left out of the data. In 2001, the aggregate wealth of the Forbes 400 equaled 2.3 percent of total personal wealth in the United States. The new Fed study tries to remedy this omission by using the published Forbes data to augment the Fed's own survey data.

First, the Fed looked at the Forbes data, which has been published annually since 1982. Between 1989 and 2001, 630 different families occupied the list for one or more years. Over that period, their average wealth rose from $921 million to $2.2 billion. However, the group has seen a significant decline in the last few years, as the stock market crashed. Average net worth peaked in 2000 at $3.1 billion and has fallen by 30 percent since then.

By contrast, those lower down the wealth distribution have done much better, because most of their net worth is tied up in housing rather than stocks. But even those who are not homeowners have done relatively well. Between 1989 and 2001, the percentage of all families with negative wealth (i.e., those with more debts than assets) fell from 7.3 percent to 6.9 percent. And those with a net worth less than $1,000 fell from 8 percent of the population to just 5.4 percent. In fact, the total number of people with less than $5,000 in assets in 1989 fell sharply by 2001, from 23 percent of all families to 18.2 percent.

Bruce Bartlett

Bruce Bartlett is a former senior fellow with the National Center for Policy Analysis of Dallas, Texas. Bartlett is a prolific author, having published over 900 articles in national publications, and prominent magazines and published four books, including Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action.

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