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Income and Wealth Inequality in America, 1949-2013

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  • Kuhn, Moritz
  • Schularick, Moritz
  • Steins, Ulrike

Abstract

This paper studies the distribution of U.S. household income and wealth over the past seven decades. We introduce a newly compiled household-level dataset based on archival data from historical waves of the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). Complementing recent work on top income and wealth shares, the long-run survey data give a granular picture of trends in the bottom 90% of the population. The new data confirm a substantial widening of income and wealth disparities since the 1970s. We show that the main loser of rising income and wealth concentration at the top was the American middle class -- households between the 25th and 75th percentile of the distribution. The household data also reveal that the paths of income and wealth inequality deviated substantially. Differences in the composition of household portfolios along the wealth distribution explain this divergence. While incomes stagnated, the middle class enjoyed substantial gains in housing wealth from highly concentrated and leveraged portfolios, mitigating wealth concentration at the top. The housing bust of 2007 put an end to this counterbalancing effect and triggered the largest spike in wealth inequality in postwar history. Our findings highlight the importance of portfolio composition, leverage and asset prices for wealth dynamics in postwar America.

Suggested Citation

  • Kuhn, Moritz & Schularick, Moritz & Steins, Ulrike, 2017. "Income and Wealth Inequality in America, 1949-2013," CEPR Discussion Papers 12218, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
  • Handle: RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:12218
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    References listed on IDEAS

    as
    1. Thomas Piketty & Emmanuel Saez & Gabriel Zucman, 2016. "Distributional National Accounts: Methods and Estimates for the United States," NBER Working Papers 22945, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    2. Bertrand Garbinti & Jonathan Goupille-Lebret & Thomas Piketty, 2017. "Accounting for Wealth Inequality Dynamics: Methods, Estimates and Simulations for France (1800-2014)," Working Papers 201605, World Inequality Lab.
    3. 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.
    4. Rochelle L. Antoniewicz, 1996. "A comparison of the household sector from the Flow of Funds Accounts and the Survey of Consumer Finances," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 96-26, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    5. Kaymak, Barış & Poschke, Markus, 2016. "The evolution of wealth inequality over half a century: The role of taxes, transfers and technology," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 77(C), pages 1-25.
    6. 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.
    7. Wojciech Kopczuk & Emmanuel Saez & Jae Song, 2010. "Earnings Inequality and Mobility in the United States: Evidence from Social Security Data Since 1937," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 125(1), pages 91-128.
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    Blog mentions

    As found by EconAcademics.org, the blog aggregator for Economics research:
    1. On the Distribution of Wealth
      by Steve Cecchetti and Kim Schoenholtz in Money, Banking and Financial Markets on 2018-04-16 11:56:16

    More about this item

    Keywords

    historical micro data; Household portfolios; Income and wealth inequality;

    JEL classification:

    • D31 - Microeconomics - - Distribution - - - Personal Income and Wealth Distribution
    • E21 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Consumption; Saving; Wealth
    • E44 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Money and Interest Rates - - - Financial Markets and the Macroeconomy
    • N3 - Economic History - - Labor and Consumers, Demography, Education, Health, Welfare, Income, Wealth, Religion, and Philanthropy

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