22 June 2006

American Wealth Concentration

The House voted to cut estate taxes by about two-thirds today (look at my Daily Kos diary in the sidebar if you want more details). It is worth remembering, now, just how concentrated wealth is in America (according to a Federal Reserve Board researcher) as this decision faces the Senate:

* The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans held 33.4 of the wealth in 2004.
* This was up from 30.1 percent in 1989.
* The top 5 percent collectively held 55.5 percent of the wealth in 2004.
* The poorest 50 percent of the American population collectively held 2.5 percent of the wealth, down from 3.0 percent in 1989.
* And the very wealthiest 1 percent of Americans own a bigger piece of the pie (33.4 percent) than the poorest 90 percent put together (30.4 percent).

For particular types of property, the inequality of holdings is even greater.

* The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans owned 62.3 percent of the business assets in 2004.
* The wealthiest 5 percent collectively owned 88.7 percent of business assets.
* The wealthiest 5 percent also owned 93.7 percent of the value of bonds, 71.7 percent of the nonresidential real estate, and 79.1 percent of the value of stock.

The family net worth cutoffs referenced above are:

99th percentile at $6,006,000
95th percentile at $1,393,000
90th percentile at $827,600
50th percentile at $92,900

Some other significant cutoffs are the 10th percentile ($200), the 25th percentile ($13,300) and the 75th percentile ($328,500). About 8% of Americans are millionaires.

Thus, a third of the nation's wealth is owned by those whose net worth is $6,006,000 or more, a third is owned by those whose net worth is $827,600 to $6,006,000, and a third is owned by those with a net worth of under $827,600 (the vast majority of which, in turn, is owned by people with a net worth of, at least, $92,900).

Both African-Americans and Hispanics are less affluent than the population at large. Among African-Americans the 10th percentile is -$1,400, the 25th percentile is $1,700, the median is $20,600, the 75th percentile is $97,000, and the 90th percentile is $248,000. Among Hispanics in the United States the 10th percentile is $0, the 25th percentile is $2,800, the median is $18,600, the 75th percentile is $103,200, and the 90th percentile is $304,100.

Income is distributed significantly more equitably than wealth.

Unrealized, and hence, untaxed, capital gains make up 31% of the wealth of the top 1% and come mostly in investment assets for these families. This trend is probably more extreme at extremely high net worths. In contrast, unrealized capital gains make up 11% of the wealth of the median family, which holds the gains mostly in a principal residence.

Another key policy area where wealth is a factor, in addition to familiar ones like campaign finance and taxation, is tort reform.

Often, tort reformers seek to cap non-economic damages in the $250,000-$500,000 range. This means a lot to someone in the top quarter of the wealth distribution. But, if you have a net worth of $328,500, a significant chunk of which is in exempt assets like a certain amount of home equity and retirement accounts, a $250,000 judgment and a $2,500,000 judgment look identical.

In the same vein, realistically, about 50% of the population is effectively judgment proof to a general non-domestic relations creditor, beyond any insurance coverage, after exemptions from creditors and bankruptcy laws are considered. People who earn below the median income (who make up roughly 80% of bankruptcy filings under Chapter 7 prior to the changes to the law that took effect in 2005) can end garnishments by filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, those who have higher incomes often cannot. They are also likely to hold a large part of their personal wealth in creditor exempt forms such as homestead protected real estate equity and retirement accounts. This is why mandatory automobile insurance laws are so central to the tort law system.


Dex said...

proph, you may be interested in this recent krugman lecture...

Dex said...

ack - not pasting right:


Richard Quick, Millionaire said...

As a multimillionaire, I find your comments flattering.

The truth is that wealth in America is a choice. Anyone who wants it need only come to me and I shall show them the way, without charge. Even academics can be millionaires, but that takes more work.

To really Get Rich Quick! pick one of my 101 ways to Get Rich Quick! available on my website, at http:richardquick.blogspot.com

Thanks again for your nice words

Millionaire Richard Quick, Esq.

Anonymous said...

Yes Mr. Millionaire academics could join your ranks but it would the compensating differential would be our morals.