The distribution in wealth in the United States is shaped like a curve. Middle-tier households have slightly more wealth than the poorest. Wealthier Americans have significantly more than the middle, but as wealth increases, so does the gap between the haves and the have-a-little-lesses. Eventually we reach that upper tier of the “1 percent” made famous by the Occupy Wall Street movement — though even that group pales next to the 0.1 percent, and so on.
One result of this geometric progression of wealth is that the richest Americans end up holding a lot more wealth than poorer ones. We can visualize this easily, thanks to data compiled by the Federal Reserve published on its data platform this month.
Here is the total net worth of the United States held by four tiers of households: Those in the bottom 50 percent of households, those in the 50th to 90th percentiles, those in the 90th to 99th percentiles, and then the top 1 percent.
That last group holds about 30 percent of the country’s net worth. The bottom 50 percent? Almost none.
The difference is even more stark when considering the amount of wealth held by the top 10 percent in total. In the most recent quarter for which data are available, the first quarter of 2019, the richest 10 percent of American households held 70.1 percent of the country’s net worth. The bottom 50 percent held 1.3 percent.
Put another way: The poorest 90 percent of American households owns 30 percent of the country’s net worth. The richest 10 percent has about 2.3 times as much.
That’s up from about 1.5 times as much 30 years ago. At that point, the bottom 90 percent of households held about 40 percent of the country’s net worth. You can see from the graph above that the primary shift in that figure occurred during the administration of George W. Bush. At the beginning of his first term in office, the top 10 percent held 62 percent of the country’s net worth. By the time he left, it was 68 percent.
Looking at each of the past five presidents, the growth in the top 10 percent under Bush is obvious. Growth in the top 1 percent, though, was largest during the administration of Barack Obama.
Under Bush, the bottom 50 percent steadily lost its share of the country’s total net wealth. After falling early in Obama’s first term — thanks to the recession — the bottom 50 percent ended up about where it had started by the time Obama left office.
In the past five administrations, the net worth held by the poorest half of households has either fallen or increased by less than a quarter of a percentage point. The average change has been a drop of 0.6 points. In each of the past five administrations, the wealth held by the top 1 percent has increased — by 1.7 points.
Under President Trump, though, that increase has been subtle. In fact, over the course of Trump’s term in office, there hasn’t been much change in the amount of wealth held by either the wealthiest or poorest American households.
With one noteworthy exception: Trump, himself a one-percenter, has seen his own net worth slide during his administration.