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What Do We Know about the Evolution of Top Wealth Shares in the United States?


  • Wojciech Kopczuk


I discuss available evidence about the evolution of top wealth shares in the United States over the course of the 20th century. The three main approaches—the Survey of Consumer Finances, estate tax multiplier, and capitalization methods—generate generally consistent findings until mid-1980s but diverge since then, with the capitalization method showing a dramatic increase in wealth concentration and the other two methods showing at best a small increase. I discuss strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. The increase in capitalization estimates since 2000 is driven by a dramatic and puzzling increase in fixed income assets. There is evidence that estate tax estimates may not be sufficiently accounting for mortality improvements over time. The nonresponse and coverage issues in the SCF are a concern. I conclude that the changing nature of top incomes and the increased importance of self-made wealth may explain difficulties in implementing each of the methods and why the results diverge.

Suggested Citation

  • Wojciech Kopczuk, 2015. "What Do We Know about the Evolution of Top Wealth Shares in the United States?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 29(1), pages 47-66, Winter.
  • Handle: RePEc:aea:jecper:v:29:y:2015:i:1:p:47-66 Note: DOI: 10.1257/jep.29.1.47

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Martin Feldstein & Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2002. "The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number feld02-1, January.
    2. Cagetti, Marco & De Nardi, Mariacristina, 2008. "Wealth Inequality: Data And Models," Macroeconomic Dynamics, Cambridge University Press, vol. 12(S2), pages 285-313, September.
    3. Martin S. Feldstein & Jeffrey B. Liebman, 2002. "Introduction to "The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform"," NBER Chapters,in: The Distributional Aspects of Social Security and Social Security Reform, pages 1-10 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Wojciech Kopczuk, 2012. "Taxation of Intergenerational Transfers and Wealth," NBER Working Papers 18584, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    5. Saez, Emmanuel & Zucman, Gabriel, 2014. "Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data," CEPR Discussion Papers 10227, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    6. Kopczuk, Wojciech & Saez, Emmanuel, 2004. "Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916-2000: Evidence From Estate Tax Returns," National Tax Journal, National Tax Association, vol. 57(2), pages 445-487, June.
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    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • P16 - Economic Systems - - Capitalist Systems - - - Political Economy of Capitalism


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