Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties in the 21st-Century U.S.

by Chuck Collins and Josh Hoxie
October 30, 2018

Wealth in the United States is concentrating into fewer and fewer hands, a trend we tracked in two previous Billionaire Bonanza reports in 2015 and 2017. This year’s edition, Billionaire Bonanza 2018: Inherited Wealth Dynasties in the 21st-Century U.S.,  focuses primarily on “dynastic” wealth that has passed from one generation to another within families. Our analysis is based on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest individuals in the United States and the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances.

Members of the Forbes 400 span the spectrum of inheritance with some inheriting their full fortune while others started their life in impoverished families. Most of the list exist somewhere in between with the privileges and benefits that come from intergenerational transfers of wealth. Forbes quantifies this distinction listing 64 members as inheriting their full fortune and 67 members inheriting a smaller fortune they grew. The rest, 269 members, are listed as “self-made.”

The Forbes 400 has grown over time with the price of admission steadily increasing alongside the total combined wealth. In 1982, a wealthy individual needed $75 million to enter the Forbes 400 list. The minimum wealth necessary in 2018: $2.1 billion. As a result, 204 U.S. billionaires did not make it onto the list. The 1982 price of admission amounted, in today’s dollars, to $200 million, less than a tenth of the wealth of today’s poorest Forbes 400 members.

In 1982, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 totaled $92 billion, or about $242 billion in today’s dollars. That’s less than the combined wealth of just the top three wealthiest people on the Forbes list today. The combined wealth of the entire top 400 today adds up to $2.89 trillion, more than the GDP of Great Britain, the fifth-largest economy in the world. Half of this wealth comes from 45 individuals. The average wealth on the 2018 Forbes list is $7.2 billion, up 7.5 percent from 2017.

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Three individuals—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett—still own more wealth the bottom half of the country combined, a fact we noted in our 2017 report, Billionaire Bonanza 2017: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us. Of these three, Jeff Bezos saw his wealth skyrocket the most, by $78.5 billion to $160 billion. That’s nearly 2 million times median U.S. family wealth.

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