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The following article appeared in Left Business Observer #78, July 1997. It retains its copyright and may not be reprinted or redistributed in any form - print, electronic, facsimile, anything - without the permission of LBO.


Measuring privilege

So it looks like wealth didn't get that much more concentrated in the 1980s after all; we had to wait until the 1990s for that to happen.

One of the wonders of modern social science is the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), conducted by the Federal Reserve in cooperation with the IRS. While the U.S. Census Bureau collects and publishes plenty of information on income, and even some on wealth, its money questions are usually a smallish part of a broader population survey, and they also miss lots of action at the upper end. The SCF, though, is based on 90-minute interviews, and the surveyors pay special attention to the rich. It's probably the best picture of household finances done anywhere in the world.

The survey has been taken every three years since 1983, though 1986's was fairly rudimentary. Results from the 1983 edition were reported in rich detail in the Federal Reserve Bulletin, the central bank's flagship periodical. Of three articles on the SCF, one was devoted to the very richest. Since 1989, though, only an overview article has been published in the Bulletin, and data on distribution made available only in highly technical unpublished working papers.

Those technical papers are essential; assembling the raw data of the survey into a representation of 100 million households is intensely complex - especially if you're seriously interested in a reliable portrait of rich people. But it's not very user-friendly to present the wealth distribution numbers only as an appendix to a complex paper explaining how they were arrived at. As a public service, LBO presents the crucial figures at the below.