Recent Trends in Wealth Ownership, 1983-1998
Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, I find that wealth inequality continued to rise in the United States after 1989, though at a reduced rate. The share of the wealthiest 1 percent of households rose by 3.6 percentage points from 1983 to 1989 and by another 0.7 percentage points from 1989 to 1998. Between 1983 and 1998, 53 percent of the total growth in net worth accrued to the top 1 percent of households and 91 percent to the top 20 percent. Another disturbing trend is that median net worth (in constant dollars), after growing by 7 percent from 1983 to 1989, increased by only another 4 percent by 1998. Indeed, the average wealth of the poorest 40 percent fell by 76 percent between 1983 and 1998 and by 1998 was only $1,100. Moreover, the financial resources accumulated by families in the bottom three income quintiles were very meager and dwindled between 1989 and 1998. The new figures also point to the growing indebtedness of the American family, with the overall debt-equity ratio climbing from 0.151 in 1983 to 0.176 in 1998. The ownership of investment assets was still highly concentrated in the hands of the rich in 1998. About 90 percent of the total value of stocks, bonds, trusts, and business equity were held by the top 10 percent. Despite the widening ownership of stock (48 percent of households owned stock shares either directly or indirectly in 1998), the richest 10 percent still accounted for 78 percent of their total value. With regard to racial and ethnic differences, the results show that over the period 1983 to 1998 non-Hispanic African-American households made some gains relative to whites in median net worth and home ownership but remained the same in terms of mean net worth. Hispanic households made significant gains on non-Hispanic white households in terms of mean net worth and home ownership but not in terms of median wealth.
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