Negative Wealth Matters


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Millions of Americans live in dire poverty, while a small number enjoy a level of nearly unfathomable opulence. I have tried to track this inequality over a number of years, most recently encapsulated in a report I co-authored with my colleague, Josh Hoxie, titled Billionaire Bonanza.

One finding from the report, that many families live in deep debt, has garnered the criticism of some fact checkers. Their critiques are misplaced—the reality is that these figures describe a harsh reality faced by millions of families.

The most widely cited finding from our report showed that the wealthiest 20 billionaires – enough to fit on a Gulfstream 650 luxury jet — have as much wealth as the bottom half of the U.S. population combined. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders cited this fact in his recent speech outlining his plans for Wall Street reform as well as in other speeches and interviews.

Using our report as well as his own independent research, Sanders also released a television ad that stated, “The 15 richest Americans acquired more wealth in two years than the bottom one hundred million combined.”

As a result, the fact checkers came calling, asking to review our assumptions and spreadsheets. Their conclusion was that the math is correct. The Iowa Gazette gave the statements an “A grade.” The Fact Checker at The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, gave it a “One Pinocchio,” which from Kessler is an “almost true” blessing. His main concern: “The net worth of the bottom 40 percent is dragged down significantly by the negative net worth of the bottom 15 percent.” also said our research was accurate, but like Kessler, they implied it was an omission not to explain that 12 percent (the accurate number, not 15 as Kessler erroneously states) of the population has negative net worth –and that this deficit pulls down the total wealth owned by the bottom 50 percent of households. Similar criticisms have been made about global juxtapositions.

The staggering number of households in the U.S. with zero or negative wealth doesn’t diminish the power of our findings. It is central to the juxtaposition of the super-haves and the have nothings. The size of this negative wealth should be a clear and present warning sign if there ever was one.

There are millions of households that literally have nothing to fall back on, in the event of a job loss, divorce, illness, accident or disruption. With no cushion, they feel deep vulnerability and insecurity. A Bankrate survey found that 63 percent of U.S. households, presented with a $1,000 emergency expense, do not have sufficient cash or savings on hand. They would have to borrow or cut expenses. The recently released Assets and Opportunity Scorecard made similar findings: “some 44 percent of households are “liquid asset poor,” meaning they have less than three months of savings to live at the poverty level if they suffer an income loss.”

It’s likely there are some high rollers in the bottom 1 percent, hedge fund operators who are overleveraged or fracked gas investors –and will soon declare bankruptcy. But the vast majority of the ranks of the zero and negative wealth people include some of the 40 million households with student debt, the millions of Americans with “underwater equity,” owing more mortgage debt than their homes are valued. Their ranks include millions with huge medical debt and overdue credit cards.

We know that people of color are overrepresented in this group with zero or negative wealth. The percentage of Black households in the United States is just 13 percent, but the proportion with zero or negative net worth is 33.9 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Some will judge those without assets for profligacy or as victims of predation, but they can’t deny a deeply troubling set of facts.

Chuck Collins directs the project on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies.