More In This Article
F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he said that the "very rich ... are different from you and me.¿ Judging by the Forbes 400 richest Americans, they are older than the average American (by 12 years), better educated (more than twice as many are college graduates), whiter (95 percent compared with 71 percent for the country as a whole) and, as has been said, they have better teeth. But like the rest of us, the rich have their ups and downs. In 1929 the top 1 percent held a 44 percent share of all personal assets, but by 1976 their share had sunk to 20 percent; in 1998 it was 36 percent. Typically the share held by the rich rises when stock prices appreciate and the price of housing, the preeminent middle-class asset, rises less swiftly--precisely what happened in the 1990s.
The single biggest reason for the spectacular increase in average assets of the Forbes 400 is the growth of electronic technology, based not only in the computer, software and Internet sectors but also in retailing, finance and mass media. In 1998 the Forbes 400 accounted for an estimated 2.6 percent of total personal net worth held by all Americans, compared with 33 percent held by the remaining one million households in the top 1 percent. The 9.2 million households in the next 9 percent held 34 percent, and the bottom 92.3 million households held 31 percent.
Perhaps a more pertinent indicator is financial wealth, which is calculated as net worth less net equity in owner-occupied dwellings and so is a measure of the more liquid assets available. An analysis by economist Edward N. Wolff of New York University showed that the bottom 40 percent of middle-aged householders in 1998 had virtually no financial wealth and thus were exceptionally vulnerable to economic shocks or personal disability. The financial wealth of the middle 20 percent would typically carry them for two to four months. The figures for the next 20 percent and the top 20 percent are, respectively, eight to 18 months and two to seven years.
This article was originally published with the title The Rich and Other Americans.