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Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data

Listed author(s):
  • Saez, Emmanuel
  • Zucman, Gabriel

This paper combines income tax returns with Flow of Funds data to estimate the distribution of household wealth in the United States since 1913. We estimate wealth by capitalizing the incomes reported by individual taxpayers, accounting for assets that do not generate taxable income. We successfully test our capitalization method in three micro datasets where we can observe both income and wealth: the Survey of Consumer Finance, linked estate and income tax returns, and foundations' tax records. Wealth concentration has followed a U-shaped evolution over the last 100 years: It was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, fell from 1929 to 1978, and has continuously increased since then. The rise of wealth inequality is almost entirely due to the rise of the top 0.1% wealth share, from 7% in 1979 to 22% in 2012---a level almost as high as in 1929. The bottom 90% wealth share first increased up to the mid-1980s and then steadily declined. The increase in wealth concentration is due to the surge of top incomes combined with an increase in saving rate inequality. Top wealth-holders are younger today than in the 1960s and earn a higher fraction of total labor income in the economy. We explain how our findings can be reconciled with Survey of Consumer Finances and estate tax data.

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Paper provided by C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers in its series CEPR Discussion Papers with number 10227.

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Date of creation: Oct 2014
Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:10227
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  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, November.
  2. Wojciech Kopczuk, 2007. "Bequest and Tax Planning: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 122(4), pages 1801-1854.
  3. Anthony B. Atkinson & Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2011. "Top Incomes in the Long Run of History," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 49(1), pages 3-71, March.
  4. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez, 2007. "How Progressive is the U.S. Federal Tax System? A Historical and International Perspective," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 21(1), pages 3-24, Winter.
  5. Edward N. Wolff, 2012. "The Asset Price Meltdown and the Wealth of the Middle Class," NBER Working Papers 18559, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  7. 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.
  8. Wojciech Kopczuk, 2014. "What Do We Know About Evolution of Top Wealth Shares in the United States?," NBER Working Papers 20734, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
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  12. Jesse Bricker & Alice Henriques & Jacob Krimmel & John Sabelhaus, 2016. "Measuring Income and Wealth at the Top Using Administrative and Survey Data," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 47(1 (Spring), pages 261-331.
  13. Raj Chetty & Nathaniel Hendren & Patrick Kline & Emmanuel Saez, 2014. "Where is the land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 129(4), pages 1553-1623.
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  17. Thomas Piketty & Gabriel Zucman, 2014. "Capital is Back: Wealth-Income Ratios in Rich Countries 1700–2010," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 129(3), pages 1255-1310.
  18. Lindert, Peter H., 2000. "Three centuries of inequality in Britain and America," Handbook of Income Distribution,in: A.B. Atkinson & F. Bourguignon (ed.), Handbook of Income Distribution, edition 1, volume 1, chapter 3, pages 167-216 Elsevier.
  19. Marianne Bertrand & Adair Morse, 2016. "Trickle-Down Consumption," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 98(5), pages 863-879, December.
  20. Arthur B. Kennickell, 2009. "Ponds and streams: wealth and income in the U.S., 1989 to 2007," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2009-13, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  21. Simon Kuznets & Lillian Epstein & Elizabeth Jenks, 1946. "National Income and Its Composition, 1919-1938, Volume II," NBER Books, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc, number kuzn41-3, December.
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