From Wall Street to Westlake Center Plaza in Seattle, the Occupy movement's "We are the 99%" signs have made me curious about the veracity of its unifying slogan as an economic claim. I'd visited such statistics before, but never felt I understood them in a coherent big picture of our nation's household wealth.
We spend so much of our lives navigating the economy, setting our sights on an higher income, aspiring to a higher net worth, comparing ourselves to coworkers and peers — but do any of us have a good map? I never found a good one by Googling, but I knew the data was public, so I decided it was time to crunch it. If you too find this visualization useful, click through it to the interactive version and please share it.
Notice that the brackets of net worth on the x-axis are log scale, not linear. There's an factor of 10 increase every third bracket. For the sake of nice even ranges, a slight irregularity to the intermediate scale factors is introduced: Instead of using 10^(1/3) ≈ 2.15, the range multipliers increase as 2, 2.5, 2. The other necessary irregularity of this graph is how it crosses into the debt brackets. 2% of the population is reported at 0 (making it the population's mode), so I chose to show it separate rather than lump it into a range. The brackets on either side of zero range by a factor of 1000 because a more detailed breakdown of his region seemed unnecessary and would be visually disruptive. And a final note: the negative share of total net worth held by those in debt (cumulatively, they have less that a quarter of one percent impact on total wealth) was left off for convenience in formatting the graph.
So, how well does the rhetoric "We are the 99%" hold up? The top 1% of the population (those with net worth $8.36 million and up) own 33.6% of the nation's wealth. To those not already familiar with statistics on wealth inequality — and studies show that most Americans are not
— the revelation that over a third of the nation's wealth is concentrated in the richest hundredth of households can be shocking. A stat like that ought to be shocking, right? I think so.
At the same time, I'm not convinced that the millions of millionaires (literally, 8% of the total US population) with net worth under $8.36M were meant to be part of the Occupy movement's rhetorical "we." But if a revision were to be made, where would "we" draw the line? In the interest of accepting the support of groups such as the tumblr "We are the 1 percent, we stand with the 99 percent"
and all the sideline support of those who have not, or cannot, make the commitment to camp and protest in public squares, it seems in the best interest of the movement's message that it not be too divisive.
Interestingly, if the slogan were to flip to "We are the 1%," that could make sense in a way too, while better representing the actual demographics of likely protesters: The bottom 41% of the population (those with under $70K) own 1% of the nation's household net worth. 50:50 balance points may also be worth considering: The 97th percentile of the population (those making above $3.4 million) is the point with equal wealth above and below. $121K is the population's balance point (median) and 2.5% of total wealth is owned by the lower half. Or perhaps what frames the most dramatic contrast of all is the fact that about 10% of the population has zero or negative net worth — close to the same percent as those holding over a million.
But what about the middle? Politically, it's very popular to show unreserved dedication to the well-being of the "middle class," a group to which many claims are attributed by many people (much as with the disputed rhetorical ownership of "the American dream"). The wide-ranging 'middle' is also a politically useful group one may summon in order to downplay and redirect class conflict between more economically disparate classes.
On the graph, we see a tale of two middles: A red bell-curve of wealth and a partially overlapping blue distribution of people. Centering a net worth bracket on the intersection of the curves, around $557K, would give the closest equivalence between share of population and share of wealth. In other words, a harmonious maximization of money and peers, and a political goldmine. This is the demographic of small business owners and entrepreneurs that both parties put atop their highest pedestal when they're pitching business incentive policies to voters.
If the middle class is to be made of people though, then this lauded red/blue overlap group is probably a bit too high for statistical inclusion. The middle 50% of the US population has net worth in the range of $14K–$373K and as a group it holds 12.83% of the household wealth. Policies that directly cater to this subset of the population are theoretically likely to be rewarded with the highest approval ratings and votes (although this is problematized by an openness to being convinced otherwise by certain corporate-funded media campaigns). Ignoring political considerations however, there is still a strong argument for the economic importance of a strong middle class. Despite the small share of overall net worth, the middle class is still highly relevant — as workers. The labor of this class is the traditional engine on which the businesses owned and managed by those with higher net worth operate. Notably, this dependence is decreasing due the greater cost-effectiveness of outsourcing labor, as well as the greater reliance on investment in capital that can perform increasingly more of the same specialized manual and knowledge-work as humans: a gradual trend of automation.
The red wealth distribution's parallel to the middle class is the middle 50% of total household net worth. This block ranges from $761K to $11.8M and — mirroring the middle class' capacity for 12% of the wealth — this wealth holds 12% of the people! There are a massive amount of liquid assets here, free for investment and development. They may be employed to develop technologies, invest in production, generate interest from the loans given to the bulk of the population, or perhaps fed into to the stock market with the expectation that the money therein will make its own money.
This brings us to the reason that the Occupy protests began in Wall Street in the first place. It's an issue of accountability among the small, rich percent of the population to the large, poorer part. When money is catastrophically mismanaged, or the lower ranks of the net worth distribution find themselves over-exploited to the detriment of the entire system, the most tangible stress and physical suffering in the down economy accrues to the middle class and those below it. And when Washington does not seem responsive to this suffering, either because of congressional obstructionism or a lack of leadership resolve to offer protections and alleviation to the blue distribution by fairly taxing the red, that's when people take to the streets. Maintaining a protest presence like Occupy is far less comfortable, far more risky, and more personally stressful than the alternative of nonparticipation and acceptance of letting others guide the system. But while in the latter there may be at most hope of change, sometimes hope is not enough and we need action.
Let us hope that these actions will have an effect. Or better, if you support the cause — join the action.