Many Washington conversations about inequality focus on income. The amount of money that American workers and families make is indeed important for their economic security—on average, wages and salaries account for nearly 80% of income for U.S. households. The income inequality and wage stagnation that have persisted for decades certainly pose threats to the health of the U.S. economy. From Securities and Exchange Commission rules about CEO pay to the official federal poverty line, we use income as the measure for assessing economic standing.
But a singular focus on income misses a larger and more intractable problem that drives economic instability and social distress: wealth inequality.
While income measures the cash flow into a household, which mostly flows right back out to pay the bills, wealth includes so much more: savings, equity in businesses, stock ownership, equity in real estate, bonds and other property, such as land. And while income inequality is staggering and growing, wealth inequality in America is even worse, by orders of magnitude. According to recent data by inequality scholars Thomas Piketty, Emmaneul Saez and Gabriel Zucman, a stunning 75 percent of household wealth and 97 percent of capital income—the kind of income generated by wealth, such as dividends, interest and capital gains—is concentrated in the top 10 percent of American households. According to another study, nearly half of American households couldn’t come up with $400 in an emergency to meet an unexpected expense, while a tiny slice of the population controls trillions of dollars in assets. It’s important to remember, too, that households of color are disproportionately on the low end of the wealth inequality spectrum; in 2016, white family wealth was seven times that of black families and five times that of Hispanic families.
While sufficient income allows a household to meet near-term needs, wealth allows a household to build resilience and plan for the future—to weather the loss of a job or a major illness or other disruption in income, to seek higher education, to save for a home, to start a business, to simply take a vacation, to retire. When we focus solely on income as the measure of inequality, we can miss these larger implications, as well as potential policy solutions.
As it happens, some of our founding fathers understood this. Our nation’s values are based on ideals of broad-based property ownership. While many of America’s founders believed in limited government, they also worried about the problem of concentrated wealth, having fled a system of concentrated wealth and inherited privilege. For them, democracy required the existence of a broad middle class with enough assets to sustain themselves and as little dependence on the state and others for their livelihood as possible. They considered broad-based property ownership as a necessary condition for reasonable taxes, small government and economic liberty. Many founders also believed that this economic independence undergirded citizens’ ability not to be manipulated by political leaders who had agendas that did not really serve their interests.
The benefits are not just economic. Recent research by Jung Kim of Rutgers University has shown that one form of wealth, an ownership stake in the company where one works, together with engagement in the company, actually makes people better citizens. They are more likely to actively participate in political activity, vote in elections, attend civic meetings and sign petitions—exactly what the founders predicted.
If we want the United States to be a country that provides opportunity to all its citizens, then we need to rethink how Americans acquire wealth and develop policies that help more workers and families acquire and develop the assets they need to achieve stability in the long term. But what are the politically tenable ways to do that?