Superrich Americans Driving Income Inequality

The 400 people on Forbes magazine's list of the richest Americans saw their combined net worth climb 8 percent this year. The good news for the wealthy comes as the poverty rate has reached a 15-year high and unemployment remains stuck near 10 percent.

The Forbes 400 list makes clear that a huge amount of wealth in this country is controlled by a very small number of people. Timothy Noah, who reported a 10-part Slate magazine series on the growth of income disparity in the U.S., says the last time the country experienced a similar kind of distortion was in the 1920s.

"It ended of course in 1929 with the crash, and after that we had a very long period in the United States where incomes grew more and more equal. That reversed itself at the end of the 1970s, and ever since then incomes have been growing more and more unequal," Noah tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer.

For his series, Noah defines the wealthy in three categories: the sort-of rich are those who make more than $100,000; the rich — those in the top 1 percent — earn more than $360,000; and stinking rich — those in the .01 percent — make more than $1 million.

A visual representation of income inequality in the U.S. over time.

hide captionThose with the top 1 percent of income have earned an increasing share of national income since the 1970s. Shown here, in 2008, the top 1 percent earned 18 percent of national income; everyone else earned 82 percent. See more from Slate's visual guide to its series on income inequality.

Catherine Mulbrandon/visualizingeconomics.com

"It's really that top 1 percent and .01 percent — the rich and the stinking rich — who at least since the early '90s have really been driving this inequality trend," Noah says.

And despite these economically rough times, the rich got 8 percent richer.

"Wall Street caused this recession and yet Wall Street recovered from it while the rest of the country is suffering from unemployment that's close to 10 percent," Noah says.

So why, as the rich have gotten richer, does everyone else seem to be sinking?

"Obviously there are inequalities related to gender and race, but the increase since 1979 has nothing to do with gender or race," he says.

Education appears to have played a very big role, as did the decline of labor.

But the notion of the American dream persists even though, he says, dreams of making it rich aren't fulfilled as often as they used to be.

"A lot of people say, 'So what if we have unequal incomes? We have a great deal of mobility in the United States. Anybody can grow up to be president.' But in truth, social mobility has actually decreased over the last 40 years," Noah says. "There's still a fervent belief that that is what defines the United States, but it is less true now than it used to be."

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