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The US’ wealthiest 1% are pulling further away from the bottom 90%

Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg at a meeting of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
Beck Diefenbach / Reuters
Happy times for billionaires.
  • Samanth Subramanian
By Samanth Subramanian

Looking into the Future of Capitalism

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Between 2015 and 2020, the wealth of the top 1% and that of the bottom 90% in the US were in near-parity; sometimes one metric stuck its head above the other, or vice versa. Then the covid-19 pandemic struck, and for a brief moment, when big banks and companies felt the hiccups and when regular Americans were receiving stimulus payments, the bottom 90% was out in front.

Now, though, the trends have reversed. Measured by share of total net worth, the richest 1% of Americans have been pulling further and further away from the bottom 90% in 2021. By this metric, the US has not witnessed today’s levels of inequality in at least the three decades that the Federal Reserve has been compiling data on wealth percentiles—and really in far longer than that.

The Fed’s data on diverging fortunes of the 1% and the 90% in 2021 is further evidence of how the pandemic has only succeeded, in the short term, in boosting the wealth of the wealthiest Americans. The 400 richest people in the US added $4.5 trillion in wealth in 2020, Forbes reported. And as the pandemic’s effects wear on, the gap is growing—posing a starker and starker challenge for president Joe Biden, even as his spending programs attempt to redress this kind of inequality in the country.

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