The Web was abuzz yesterday with Occupy-movement-appropriate news that the Waltons, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, have amassed a fortune equal to that of the combined net worth of the bottom 30 percent of Americans, according to an analysis in 2007.
Income inequality in the United States is currently at its highest since the 1920s, as Occupiers often remind the public using the slogan “We are the 99 percent,” and the Waltons appear to be the clearest example of that divide.
But while the six children of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton have been on the Forbes billionaires list for several years now, the family was in dire straits financially just four decades ago.
In his youth, Walton worked as a lifeguard, waiter and newspaper deliveryman, among other odd jobs, so that he could pay his college tuition and feed his family. When he opened his first store in Newport, Ark., in 1945, it was a five-and-dime Ben Franklin franchise that he started with money saved from the military and borrowed from his father-in-law. It was a difficult start, with Walton soon finding out that he was paying the highest rent for a retail store anywhere around.
And even after making his billions from Wal-Mart in the late 1970s, Walton still drove a pickup truck and wore clothes from his own discount store.
For his children, however, that’s never been the way. Their appearance on the Forbes richest list has long indicated the source of heir fortune as “inherited.”
And the gap between the Wal-Mart heirs and the rest of the country may get even bigger next year, as their wealth is consistently growing, according to the Forbes 400 list this year.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents to a poll by the publication The Hill said they think income inequality is a problem in America. According to the U.S. Census, it is a situation that has persisted since the late 1970s, a time Princeton economist Paul Krugman calls the “Great Divergence,” and the years in which Sam Walton began to make his billions.
Here’s a look at income inequality in the United States, from 1947, two years before Walton got his start, to present: