America’s ‘wealth dynasties’ are getting bigger
Most people work hard to provide for their family hoping to generate enough money to afford the basics. Their only chance at vast fortune is a lottery ticket. For other families, they need only wait patiently for their fortunes to come — the result of a genetic lottery they were lucky enough to win.
No family is wealthier than the Waltons of WalMart. Sam Walton opened the first Wal-Mart in 1962 in Arkansas after a 20-year career managing stores. Twenty years later, Walton’s fortune had grown to $690 million, according to the first Forbes 400 listing of the wealthiest individuals in the country in 1982. Adjusting for inflation, that figure rises to $1.81 billion in 2018 dollars.
A generation later, Sam Walton has long since passed, while the Walton family fortune has ballooned. It now boasts not one, but seven members of the Forbes 400, with a combined family worth of $169.7 billion.
In other words, the Walton family saw their wealth rise by more than 9,000 percent over the course of a generation. And for the heirs of Sam Walton, their only real contribution to generating this fortune has been hard waiting, not hard working.
That was just one finding in a new report I coauthored for the Institute for Policy Studies. We found that wealth dynasties like the Waltons now loom more dramatically over ordinary Americans than ever. The report finds that dynastic wealthiest families with multiple members of the Forbes 400 — the Walton, the Koch and the Mars families — have seen their wealth increase nearly 6,000 percent since 1982. Meanwhile, median household wealth went down by 3 percent, after adjusting for inflation.
These three wealth dynasties own a combined fortune of $348.7 billion. That’s more than 4 million times the median wealth of U.S. families, about $80,000.
Despite massive increases in productivity and economic growth, just generating enough money to afford a house, health care, children’s education, food and maybe an occasional vacation is no small feat for middle earners in the United States. One in five families has zero or negative wealth. Two in five Americans couldn’t come up with $400 if they needed it in an emergency.
And that’s just the middle. After a tour of the United States last year, U.N. extreme poverty rapporteur Philip Alston reported: “About 40 million (Americans) live in poverty, 18.5 million in extreme poverty, and 5.3 million live in Third World conditions of absolute poverty.”
Meanwhile, the ultrawealthy break new records year after year. In just the past year, the global wealth of billionaires jumped 20 percent, according to a new report from the Swiss bank UBS.
We can’t separate the ever-concentrating wealth of the ultra-rich from the declining economic realities of the rest of us. Each year, a greater part of our collective treasure finds its way into a smaller and smaller number of hands.
This isn’t news to the Wal-Mart employees who struggle to get by on wages below the cost of living, which often requires them to rely on public assistance programs despite working full time. It’s also not lost on Amazon employees who, even at their recently increased wage of $15 an hour, would need to toil for 2.5 million years to make what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — the richest man in the world — made last year alone.
The United State is in desperate need of public policy to address the growing crisis of wealth inequality. With a billionaire in the White House, whose wealth depended on a massive family inheritance, it’s unlikely such solutions will come from the top.
However, the policies exist. A smart step forward would be instituting a federal wealth tax. A modest 1 percent tax on assets above $20 million would raise an estimated $1.9 trillion over 10 years, which could be invested in generating economic opportunities for low-wealth families. Another good idea is to tax large inheritances — genetic lottery winnings, really — as ordinary income.
Why should heirs and heiresses like Paris Hilton pay less taxes than workers? Why shouldn’t we as a country demand an end to skyrocketing inequality, and take action to bring about that end?
Josh Hoxie, director Project on Taxation and Opportunity Institute for Policy Studies Washington, D.C.