November 2007

Currents and Undercurrents: Changes in the Distribution of Wealth, 1989-2004

Arthur B. Kennickell


This paper considers changes in the distribution of the wealth of U.S. families over the 1989-2004 period using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). Real net worth grew broadly over this period. At the same time, there are indications that wealth became more concentrated, but the result does not hold unambiguously across a set of plausible measures. For example, the Gini coefficient shows significant increases in the concentration of wealth from 1989 to 2004, but the wealth share of the wealthiest one percent of families did not change significantly. Graphical analysis suggests that there was a shift in favor of the top of the distribution, while for the broad middle of the distribution increases were about in proportion to earlier wealth. Within this period, there are other interesting patterns. For example, from 1992 to 2004 the wealth share of the least wealthy half of the population fell significantly to 2.5 percent of total wealth. The data show little in the way of significant distributional shifts since the 2001 survey. The paper also presents some information on underlying factors that may explain a part of the distribution of wealth, including capital gains, saving behavior and income, inheritances, and other factors. There are two special topic sections in the paper. The first presents information on the distributions of wealth of African American and Hispanic families. The second presents information on the use of debt across the distribution of wealth.

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Keywords: Wealth distribution, SCF

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