Who Owns What In America?
Imagine lining up everyone in America according to what they own, starting with those who own nothing and continuing down the line to those who own a lot. Now divide that line of people into five equally long segments. Each segment would include 20% of the total population, or about 61.7 million people. Next, add up the total amount of what everyone owns in each segment. The result is represented by the pie chart below. The whole pie represents the total wealth in America. The size of each slice represent the ratio of how much each segment owns of America’s wealth. The slice of ownership for the poor and working poor are barely visible. 80% of all Americans own just 15.6% of America’s wealth.
The number of people who slipped into poverty in 2010 is an all time high of 46.2 million, so the poorest 20% in terms of wealth ownership includes 15.5 million folks who technically don’t meet the poverty criteria, based on income levels. The poor essentially own almost nothing. The working poor own twice of almost nothing.
When I first plotted the distribution of wealth in America in this pie chart it reminded me a little of that Pac-Man character. The richest Americans own 84.6% of everything while the remaining 80% of us have 15.4% left. The statistical middle of what I labeled the “Middle America” owns just 4% of America’s wealth assets.
This raises an interest question. How do we define middle class? Is Middle America, as I’ve labeled it here the same as middle-class?
No, We usually define middle class by income levels, not wealth ownership. As of 2011 the median family income has declined to just over $51,000 per year. If we were to define middle class based on 10% of families above and below the median income (as I have done here for wealth ownership, the narrow and very low income range would not fit most peoples conception of “middle class”.
But this pie chart displays the distribution of wealth, not income. It includes all equity ownership in everything from homes to 401K’s, stocks, bonds, businesses, etc. This chart cannot be directly converted to income levels. There are people with equity but not much income and people with large incomes but not much equity.
However, from a visual perspective the median income (middle most income) will still fall somewhere near the center of the red colored slice, about where the label line is drawn. Individuals in that group made about $26,364 per year, or about $52,000 per household in 2010. Beyond that it is difficult to superimpose income brackets on this pie chart
This graphic really make clear just how compressed wealth distribution is in America. Missing from the public dialogue over the past few decades is mention of the working poor. Politicians and the media seem to focus on the middle class or the poor as if there were no working poor.
The other conclusion I come away with is that there is plenty of wealth here in the still wealthiest nation on Earth. Telling ourselves that we can’t afford social services for the poor or good public schools or what ever else we desire as a nation is simply not true. As a nation we can afford a much better society than we have now.