A Rolling Tide
Changes in the Distribution of Wealth in the US, 1989–2001
From 1989 to 2001, wealth in real terms increased overall among families in the United States. But characterizing distributional changes is much more complex; it depends on the specific questions asked. For example, there is evidence both from Forbes data on the 400 wealthiest Americans and from the SCF, which explicitly excludes families in the Forbes list, that wealth grew relatively strongly at the very top of the distribution. At the same time, the share of total household wealth held by the Forbes group rose. However, while the point estimate of the share of total wealth held by the wealthiest 1 percent of families, as measured by the SCF, also rose, the change is not statistically significant. In 2001, the division of wealth observed in the SCF attributed about a third each to the wealthiest one percent, the next wealthiest nine percent, and the remaining 90 percent of the population. The paper decomposes wealth holdings and distributional shifts in a variety of other ways. Particular attention is given to families with negative net worth, families of older baby boomers, and African American families.