Back in 1982, in the early stages of that redistribution, Forbes began publishing an annual compilation of the nation’s 400 grandest private fortunes. The initial Forbes400 list included just 13 billionaires. Their combined wealth: $92 billion. Over the next four decades, Forbes notes, the combined net worth of America’s richest 400 would rise to “a staggering $4.5 trillion — making them nearly 50 times better off than their 1982 counterparts, far outpacing the consumer price index’s near tripling.”
Overall wealth in the United States, the Federal Reserve relates, now totals $140 trillion. The bottom half of Americans hold just $4 trillion of that.
The United States, adds the New York Times in a new analysis, is approaching an unprecedented “intergenerational transfer of wealth” that “will largely reinforce” this current record inequality. Households worth over $5 million, the Boston-based Cerulli Associates financial research firm calculates, make up just 1.5 percent of total U.S. households. Between now and 2045, this tiny share of the nation’s households will account for 42.5 percent of expected wealth transfers.
Making that top-heavy transfer even worse: Under existing U.S. tax law, wealthy married couples can pass on to their heirs as much as $26 million without paying a penny in federal estate tax.
Meanwhile, observes a top research exec at the Vanguard Group, tens of millions of American workers aging into their seventies can’t afford to retire. “All but the most wealthy” among us, Vanguard’s Fiona Greig tells the New York Times reporter Talmon Joseph Smith, appear to be — to some degree — financially unprepared for retirement.
Smith’s conclusion? The headline over his economic preview published earlier this week tells it all: “The Greatest Wealth Transfer in History Is Here, With Familiar (Rich) Winners.”
But our upcoming transfer of generational wealth doesn’t have to play out that way. The vast 1940-to-1960 expansion of America’s middle class, we need to keep in mind, didn’t just happen. Advocates for greater equality made it happen. Back before the Great Depression, those advocates confronted a maldistribution of income and wealth just as severe as the maldistribution we confront today. They battled for greater equity, and their success in that battle held up for a generation.
The challenge we confront today? We need to do more than create a much more equitable distribution of income and wealth. We need to create a much more equitable distribution of income and wealth that can last.
This content originally appeared on CounterPunch.org and was authored by Sam Pizzigati.