And the Rich Get Richer

Although this country's official ideology paints the United States as a largely middle-class, egalitarian society, with the exception of a small percentage of people at the extremes of wealth and poverty, recent figures imply a different picture.As if to affirm the well-worn adage that "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," government statistics report wages for average Americans continue to stagnate or drop, while the number of billionaires increased 30 percent in a year. Also, the net worth of the wealthiest 500 individuals and families increased 18 percent from just over $500 billion in 1995 to just under $593 billion this year.A recent study by the Boston-based United for a Fair Economy (UFE) of the Forbes magazine yearly roundup of the 400 richest U.S. individuals and families strongly suggests that not only is the vaunted "level playing field" a myth, but wealth is becoming more entrenched, not less. Their research reveals that more than half of those listed as the Forbes 400 started life with at least $50 million in assets or by inheriting profitable companies. Having a head start in life was essential to the success of all but 30 percent of those on the list published by the conservative business magazine.The study, "Born on Third Base: The Sources of Wealth of the Forbes 400," analyzes the last two years of the magazine's data for the sources of wealth and the biographical origins of the 400 individuals and 100 richest families named on the 1995 list and then for newcomers on the October 1996 survey. Charles Collins, co-director of UFE, points out that Forbes usually gives great accolades to the "bootstrappers," those who start with nothing yet rise to great heights. "The magazine usually celebrates these Horatio Alger/rags-to-riches stories," says Collins, "so, we thought it would be interesting to look at who inherited their way onto the list."According to Collins, "We found the key to great wealth for the top 500 in the U.S. is to choose successful parents."Collins says since baseball and making money are America's favorite pastimes -- and each year the Forbes list coincides with the post-season playoffs and World Series -- UFE put those named into baseball-type categories.Thirty percent started in the Batter's Box; this includes people like H. Ross Perot whose families did not have great wealth.Fourteen percent were Born on First Base; persons whose families were upper class, such as Bill Gates, but without assets of more than $1 million. Six percent were Born on Second Base; those who inherit a small company or wealth worth more than $1 million, but less than $50 million and, like poultry magnate Donald Tyson, built it into a fortune. Seven percent were Born on Third Base; those who inherit substantial wealth in excess of $50 million, but not quite enough to qualify for the list. Forty-three percent were Born on Home Plate; those elite, ruling-class figures like David Rockefeller who inherit sufficient wealth to qualify them.According to the study, Michigan shows a high number of "bootstrappers." Asked about Little Caesar's Mike Ilitch, Domino's Tom Monaghan, Amway co-founder Rich DeVos and financier Max Fisher, UFE staffer Marc Bayard reports, "It looks like all of them except for Fisher started in the batter's box; Fisher started on first base."UFE co-director Collins feels such a concentration of wealth has dangerous consequences for the stability of this country's democracy, economy and civic life. "While a growing number of Americans have declining savings, limited retirement options and stagnating incomes, the inherited asset holdings at the top are exploding," he says. "There may be 30 percent more billionaires, but there are not 30 percent more people with savings, or 30 percent more people with health insurance."

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