A Little Historical Perspective on the Latest Forbes 400

The past year, Forbes reported earlier this week, has not been particularly kind to Donald Trump’s personal fortune. The real estate mogul’s net worth has dropped $800 million since September 2015.

Last fall, Trump ranked as America’s 121st richest individual. On the just-released new Forbes list of the nation’s 400 richest, he ranks a mere 156th.

Trump does have company in his sinking billionaire status. Some 114 billionaires on the 2016 Forbes 400 list now have less wealth than they sported a year ago. Only 187 of the 400 have more.

forbes-400-coverOverall, the average net worth of a billionaire on the 2016 Forbes list stands just 3 percent higher than the average net worth on the 2015 list.

By contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that income of the typical American family jumped by 5.2 percent last year, the largest annual increase in a generation.

So have we turned a corner? Is the deeply unequal U.S. economy starting to self-correct? Is the Age of the Billionaires finally fading?

Unfortunately, not in the least.

Let’s start with those new Census figures. Despite the income increase for median U.S, households that appears in the new Census numbers, typical U.S. households are still pulling in no more income than they did in 1998.

Wages for huge swatches of the American people, meanwhile, are continuing to stagnate – and worse. Former Census Bureau statisticians now with Sentier Research released new figures this week that compare the 2014 wages of white male high school grads – the demographic Donald Trump is trying to lock down – to the wages of these same workers in 1996.

Back in 1996, white high school grads age 25 to 44 averaged $40,362 in earnings. About two decades later, in 2014, these same white high school grads — now age 43 to 62 — averaged $36,787, after adjusting for inflation.

Keep in mind that white workers overall continue to do better on wages than black workers. An Economic Policy Institute study last month found the black-white wage gap actually growing.

America’s super rich, by contrast, have been doing splendidly. Just how splendidly only becomes clear when you consider the entire period since 1982, the year Forbes launched its annual top 400 list.

Donald Trump and his dad appeared on that initial list. Their net worth: $200 million, a fortune that put the Trump household almost right in the middle of that year’s richest 400. The average net worth on the 1982 Forbes 400 list: $230.8 million.

The $200-million Trump fortune in 1982 – even adjusting for inflation – wouldn’t get a deep pocket anywhere near spitting distance of America’s top 400 today. Deep pockets in 2016 need a personal net worth of at least $1.7 billion to make it into Forbes 400 territory.

Still another comparative yardstick: The 400 wealthy Americans on the 1982 Forbes list held a combined wealth of $218 billion, the equivalent of about $544 billion today. The combined net worth of the current Forbes 400: $2.4 trillion.

Our 400 wealthiest have, in effect, well more than quadrupled their wealth, after taking inflation into account, since 1982. Average Americans have essentially spent those same years running economically in place, working more productively than ever before without having much of anything to show for their labor.

Inequality in America, in short, remains alive and sickeningly well.

Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow Sam Pizzigati co-edits Inequality.org. His most recent book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900–1970. Follow him on Twitter @Too_Much_Online.

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