Myth Busting: The Wealth Gap Isn't at a Record High


Most of the debate around rising inequality centers on income. The One Percent, we're told, has more of the nation's income today than ever before.

But it's equally instructive to look at wealth in addition to income. While incomes are volatile and fleeting, wealth is more enduring.

A new study shows that America's so-called wealth gap is actually narrower than it was 15 years ago. And most of the growth in wealth inequality occurred in the 1980s – not in the 2000s.

A National Bureau of Economic Research paper by Edward N. Wolff, a New York University professor and one of the leading U.S. experts on wealth shares, shows that in 1998, the richest one percent of Americans owned 38.1 percent of the nation's wealth. It has fallen fairly steadily since then to the current level of 35.4 percent.

The largest percentage growth in wealth inequality occurred between 1983 and 1989, when the One Percent's share grew from 33.8 percent to 37.4 percent. (Read more: Cities That Mint Millionaires)

As Wolff writes, wealth inequality "after rising steeply between 1983 and 1989, remained virtually unchanged from 1989 to 2007."

The reason for the rise in the 1980s, he says, was both rising income inequality and the stock market rise, which benefited the wealthy (who own the most stocks) far more than the rest of the country. (Read more: More than 300,000 Millionaires Would Go Off 'Cliff')

Of course, wealth inequality has risen during the current recession 2007. The One Percent's share of wealth notched up to 35.4 percent in 2010 from 34.6 percent, due also, no doubt, to the stock market rebound combined with a relative slow recovery in housing (which weighs down the rest of America).

A 35 percent share of wealth for the One Percent may still be unacceptably high for many. Still, the data shows that despite the media catch-phrase of "the growing wealth gap" and "rising inequality" it's not really growing – at least when it comes to wealth.