Rich got richer during 1980s while everyone else held on, census data show

January 11, 1991|By Robert Pear | Robert Pear,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The wealth of affluent people grew substantially in the 1980s while the assets of other Americans barely kept pace with inflation, the Census Bureau reported yesterday.

The government and private economists have been reporting for several years that the nation's income distribution was becoming more unequal, with a bigger gap between people of high and low incomes.

Yesterday's report was one of the first systematic examinations of wealth, reflecting not just one year's income but the lifetime accumulation of property and other assets.

The Census Bureau said that for the most affluent one-fifth of all households, wealth rose by 14 percent from 1984 to 1988, after adjusting for inflation. For other households, wealth was not significantly different in 1988 from 1984, the bureau said.

In 1988 the United States had 91.6 million households. The top fifth consisted of 18.3 million households with an average income of $46,600 a year; the median wealth of those households was $111,770. The number of households above a median is the same as the number below it.

Wealth, or net worth, is defined by the bureau as the value of savings and checking accounts, real estate, automobiles, stocks and bonds and other assets, minus debts.

The value of pension plans, jewelry and home furnishings was not included. The bureau report is based on interviews with 24,000 households chosen to be representative of all the nation's households.

White households typically have 10 times as much wealth as do black households, the Census Bureau reported. The difference between the races was about the same in 1988 as it was in 1984.

Judith H. Eargle, an economist at the Census Bureau, said that as expected, the latest study showed that wealth increased with a person's income, age and education.

While the median income of whites is roughly twice that of blacks, the disparity in wealth is much greater, partly because wealth reflects decades of differences in earnings, investment and the inheritance of property.

The data in the report suggest why economic disparities between blacks and whites are likely to endure even if blacks' incomes catch up with whites': People with similar incomes can have very different levels of wealth.

The median wealth of all households in 1988 was $35,750, the bureau said. The median was $43,280 for whites, $4,170 for blacks and $5,520 for Hispanic households.

Elderly couples often have lower incomes than do younger couples. But the median wealth of elderly married people, $124,420, is about 10 times that of couples in which the head of household is under 35 years of age, the bureau said.

In the Census Bureau survey, 29 percent of black households reported that they had no wealth, meaning that they owned no assets or that their liabilities exceeded their assets.

At the other end of the scale, 29 percent of white households reported wealth of $100,000 or more, against 5 percent of black households and 12 percent of Hispanic households.

Robert B. Avery, a professor of economics at Cornell University in New York state, said that the bureau's survey of 24,000 households gave a reliable picture of the population in general but that it was "not good in measuring the very top of the wealth distribution because there is no particular effort to sample high-income people." Surveys by the Federal Reserve Board suggest 1 percent of all households hold one-third of all personal wealth, said Mr. Avery, a former employee of the board's.

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