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Abstract:

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Public Economics Programme Discussion Paper
Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data
Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman August 2015
Paper No' PEP 26:
Full Paper (pdf)

Tags: income tax; wealth inequality;

This paper combines income tax returns with macroeconomic household balance sheets to estimate the distribution of wealth in the United States since 1913. We estimate wealth by capitalizing the incomes reported by individual taxpayers, accounting for assets that do not generate taxable income. We successfully test our capitalization method in three micro datasets where we can observe both income and wealth: the Survey of Consumer Finance, linked estate and income tax returns, and foundations’ tax records. We find that wealth concentration was high in the beginning of the twentieth century, fell from 1929 to 1978, and has continuously increased since then. The top 0.1% wealth share has risen from 7%in 1978 to 22% in 2012, a level almost as high as in 1929. Top wealth-holders are younger today than in the 1960s and earn a higher fraction of the economy’s labor income. The bottom 90% wealth share first increased up to the mid-1980s and then steadily declined. The increase in wealth inequality in recent decades is due to the upsurge of top incomes combined to an increase in saving rate inequality. We explain how our findings can be reconciled with Survey of Consumer Finances and estate tax data.