The country's richest people are incredibly, stunningly, jaw-droppingly wealthy -- with more assets than millions and millions of Americans put together.
That gulf was starkly illustrated in a report this week from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, showing that just 17 white men and three white women -- see the list below -- own more wealth (savings, stocks, real estate, etc.) than the entire bottom half of the American population, or about 152 million people.
Perhaps the most startling divide is the one between whites and blacks. The wealthiest 100 households in the United States are wealthier than all the black people in the country combined, according to the report, which used Federal Reserve data on American wealth and compared it with the numbers from the Forbes 400, Forbes magazine's annual ranking of the nation's most moneyed.
"This is indisputably divided along racial lines," Josh Hoxie, one of the report's authors and the director of the Project on Opportunity and Taxation at IPS, told The Huffington Post.
There are only five Latinos on the Forbes 400 list, Hoxie pointed out, and just two black people -- Oprah Winfrey and Robert Smith, a tech investor.
It's not just that there's a huge gulf between African-Americans and rich white people. There's also a huge divide between African-Americans and white people who aren't particularly rich.
The typical African-American household holds $11,000 in wealth, while the median white household has $142,000, the report notes. Stocks and housing are big factors contributing to that divide.
Only 42 percent of African-Americans own a home, compared to 71.9 percent of white Americans. And African-Americans hold less stock than white people, meaning they haven't benefited as much from the market boom of the past few years.
The low rates of home ownership among black Americans are due in no small part to decades of racist housing policy in the United States -- as Ta-Nehisi Coates documented in painstaking detail in a story last year for The Atlantic.
The Forbes numbers may actually underestimate how rich these people are, the IPS report points out. Since many wealthy Americans now shelter their cash overseas, it's difficult to gauge the true extent of their assets. It's telling that the best numbers on the rich's holdings come from a private magazine, Hoxie said, because the whole subject is fairly "opaque."
The total wealth of the richest 400 Americans is now $2.34 trillion, a record high. But for most Americans, their income and wealth have been stagnant for years, widening the gulf between the haves and have-nots.
This growing inequality is bad for the country, the report argues, in a number of ways. For one, it concentrates political power in the hands of a few privileged individuals who can afford to make big donations.
High rates of inequality have also been shown through some studies to destabilize societies, worsening the health of citizens and diminishing social cohesion. In addition, the IPS report argues that extreme inequality "undermines the cherished value of equality of opportunity and social mobility."
IPS is advocating for several policies that could help reduce the divide, including a global wealth tax -- something the French economist Thomas Piketty has also suggested. Basically, the 1 percent would be subject to a 1 percent tax on their wealth. The report estimates that this could bring in about $260 billion a year in the U.S., money that could be redistributed to middle- and working-class Americans who don't get the same kind of tax breaks the wealthy enjoy. (For example, the money you make when you sell stock is taxed at a lower rate than regular income.)
Many of the super-wealthy know they've got more than their fair share. Warren Buffett is known for pointing out the odd fact that his secretary pays a higher percent of her income in taxes than he does.
Buffett and several more of the country's 10 wealthiest white men -- which is to say, the country's 10 wealthiest people -- have signed the Giving Pledge, a declaration to give away over half their fortunes to philanthropic or charitable causes. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg are among this group. In addition, Zuckerberg made headlines this week with his plan to give away some $45 billion worth of Facebook shares.
Still, it would be nice to have some actual policies in place rather than relying on the goodwill of the very, very rich. Besides taxing capital gains as normal income, the IPS report also recommends restructuring student loans, creating savings accounts for children and establishing a program to help more Americans afford homes.
"Failing to invest in programs that encourage wealth creation at the bottom," the report notes, "perpetuates a wealth gap that concentrates the nation’s resources into fewer and fewer hands."