There’s some new interesting research coming out on who, exactly, are the super-wealthy in America.
First, from Steven Kaplan and Joshua Rauh. Looking at the Forbes 400 (the list published by Forbes each year showing the wealth of the 400 richest Americans), Kaplan and Rauh found that the majority of the super wealthy in 2011 were self-made: 69% of those on the list were self-made billionaires, up from 40% in 1982. Conversely, those who inherited wealth fell from 60% in 1982 to just 32%. Now, to be fair, some of those who made their fortunes did inherit some wealth (for example, the Koch brothers or the Waltons), but they continued to expand their wealth by offering goods and services to individuals. The numbers are very similar when looking at the 2015 list: 69% are self-made, and a small proportion inherited their wealth.
There’s also interesting info about inter-generational fortunes. It turns out, of the current 185 billionaire families in America, only 16 (8.9%) can trace their fortune back to the 19th Century. Notable names not on this list include: the Vanderbilts, Carnegies, Morgans (of JP Morgan fame), or Astors. Each of those families had wealth of over $100 billion in 2015 dollars. The Rockefellers have seen their fortune fall 97.1%, from $340 billion to $10 billion.
What these figures tell me is concerns about concentrated wealth is America are largely overplayed. If anything, the American Dream is alive and well.
Updated 23 May 2015 to correct a math mistake.