A new IPS/Inequality.org report finds that the U.S. continues to suffer from the extreme and growing wealth and power of inherited-wealth family dynasties – and the growth of their extreme wealth accelerated during the pandemic.
The report, “Silver Spoon Oligarchs: How America’s 50 Largest Inherited-Wealth Dynasties Accelerate Inequality,” tracks the 50 wealthiest families from 1983 to 2020 using data from Forbes.
IPS researchers found that by 2020, the 50 families had amassed $1.2 trillion in assets. For the 27 families on the Forbes 400 list in 1983, their combined wealth had grown by 1,007 percent, from $80.2 billion to $903.2 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars, and for the five wealthiest dynastic families, their wealth increased by a median 2,484 percent during 37 years. The Walton family led the pack with an increase of 4,320 percent, while the Mars candy family saw its wealth increase 3,517 percent.
While media attention focuses on first-generation billionaires – and their shocking tax avoidance as chronicled by ProPublica – we neglect to look at the troubling growth of dynastic families and the changes in tax policies that will enable the children of today’s billionaires to become tomorrow’s oligarchs.
As the report argues, in a healthy democratic society with a functioning tax system, wealth disperses over decades as people have children, pay their taxes, and give to charity. But with a weak tax system on wealth – as confirmed by the recent leak showing low billionaire taxes – we are now seeing wealth accelerate over generations, leading to consolidated wealth and power.
Other key findings from the report include:
Dynastic wealth grows much faster than the wealth of ordinary families. The 27 families who were on the Forbes 400 list in 1983 had a median increase in their net worth, adjusted for inflation, of 904 percent over those 37 years. In contrast, between 1989 and 2019—the most recent year available—the wealth of the typical family in the U.S. increased by just 93 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.
The wealth of the very top grew even faster. The five wealthiest dynastic families in the US have seen their wealth increase by a median 2,484 percent from 1983 to 2020. For example:
+ In 1983, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and his children were worth just $2.15 billion (or $5.6 billion in 2020 dollars). By the end of 2020, Walton’s descendants had a combined net worth of over $247 billion, an inflation-adjusted increase of 4,320 percent.
+ The Mars candy dynasty has seen its wealth increase 3,517 percent over the past 37 years, from $2.6 billion in 1983 (in 2020 dollars) to $94 billion by 2020. The Mars family also stands out for the miniscule amount of money they have stored in family foundations—$48 million as of 2018—in contrast to the large sums they have spent on public policy advocacy to change tax laws.
+ Cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder and her descendants have seen their wealth grow from just $1.6 billion in 1983 (in 2020 dollars) to $40 billion in 2020. This is a growth rate of 2,465 percent. A hefty portion of that growth has come in just the past five years: the Lauder family’s assets have grown 119 percent since 2015, for an average growth rate of 16.9 percent each year.
Dynastic wealth is persistent and consolidating. Of the 20 wealthiest families on the list in 2020, 13 were already in the top 20 in 1983. Only 4 of the top 20 wealth dynasties are new to the list since 1983.
Wealth for dynastic families has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the top 10 families on the Forbes dynasty list have had a median growth in their net worth of 25 percent.
Dynastically wealthy families wield a great deal of political power, and use it to further their interests. The report profiles dynastic family members who spend millions lobbying for favorable tax, labor, and trade policies, give to candidates, campaigns and PACs, serve on policy advisory boards; and even serve in government themselves. For example, members of the Busch, Mars, Koch, and Walton families have together spent more than $120 million over the past ten years on lobbying directly for tax, labor, and trade policies favorable to their businesses and investments.
Dynastic families wield a great deal of philanthropic power and can use it to further their self-interest. The report examined more than 248 foundations set up by the top 50 families, housing more than $51 billion in assets. While many move much-needed revenue to broader public interest charities, others fund groups working to reduce taxes on the wealthy and roll back regulations that constrain corporate profits. Some funnel millions to donor-advised funds, which can fund dark-money political advocacy. And in a few cases, family members have used them to compensate themselves.
The report profiles all of the 50 families, including the Waltons, the Kochs, the Mars family, and many others, some well-known and some relatively unknown. A section of the report entitled, “The Six Habits of Highly-Entrenched Dynasties,” details how family dynasties hoard and protect their fortunes from taxes. These include tax avoidance, low-charitable giving, formation of dynasty trusts, and lobbying for tax breaks.
The report includes a number of recommendations, including greater oversight of taxation, wealth taxation and abolition of certain kinds of trusts.
The report concludes:
These trends are alarming for the health of a republic that aspires to widely held prosperity and opportunity. If we stay on our current trajectory, families of inherited wealth will exert ever more control over public policy and the public pocketbook. But we can choose to move in a new direction: to enact economic policies that strengthen society as a whole, ensuring equal opportunity and dignity for all, not just the very few.
The report co-authors are Chuck Collins, Joe Fitzgerald, Helen Flannery, Omar Ocampo, Sophia Paslaski and Kalena Thomhave.