Money Is Piling Up For America's Family Dynasties

A new study warns of rapidly growing fortunes being concentrated in fewer hands that have never known hard work.

The wealth of America’s 50 richest family dynasties has soared at 10 times the rate of typical U.S. families over the last four decades, according to a new study that warns of the increasing concentration of riches.

The report from the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, found that the collective wealth of the richest 27 families on the Forbes billion-dollar dynasties list and Forbes 400 list grew by 1,007% from 1983 to last year, from $80.2 billion to $903.2 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. Wealth grew less than one-tenth of that — just 93% — for the typical American family.

The five wealthiest family dynasties — the Waltons, Kochs, Marses, Cargill-MacMillans and Lauders — saw their wealth soar 2,484% since 1983, noted the study, “Silver Spoon Oligarchs: How America’s 50 Largest Inherited-Wealth Dynasties Accelerate Inequality.”

The 50 wealthiest U.S. clans were worth a total of $1.2 trillion at the end of last year. The 65 million families at the bottom economic half of all households shared a combined total of just $2.5 trillion.

The study noted that wealth among America’s richest family dynasties ends up vastly rewarding family members who had nothing to do with earning the fortune, defying the defense that riches are an incentive for hard work and innovation. Instead, the riches are plowed into protections for family wealth, providing fewer benefits for society.

“In healthy, equitable democratic societies, great fortunes dissipate over a few generations as initial wealth holders have children and grandchildren, pay their fair share of taxes, and make charitable gifts,” the report says.

“But our country’s wealth is accumulating in fewer hands, including among people who may be up to seven generations removed from the original source of their family’s wealth. At a certain stage, some of these wealth holders — or their descendants — shift resources to consolidate their wealth, fend off competition, and create monopolies.”

Even the coronavirus pandemic has been a boon for some of the richest families. As ordinary families struggled with job loss, plunging income and increased health costs, the top 10 families on the Forbes dynasty list basked in a median growth in their net worth of 25%.

In the first two months of the pandemic, the total net worth of more than 600 billionaires in the U.S. grew by 15%, or $434 billion, according to a report last year by the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2018, the wealth gap between the rich and everyone else was the widest ever since the census began tracking it a half-century ago.

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