The New Rich List
Back in the early 1990s, I was—for a short while—a reporter/ researcher for Forbes magazine. During my tenure there, I got a few plum assignments, including spending one weekend fact-checking the first interview Michael Milken had granted from prison and fact-checking another on the businessman who would eventually become New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg. I suppose I did well enough because I was soon tapped to do a little legwork on Forbes's lists of billionaires and richest celebrities.
The preeminent Forbes rich list, of course, is the Forbes 400: the list of the country's four hundred wealthiest Americans. It has been around since 1982, when just three families made up 13 percent of the list. There were eleven members of the Hunt family, fourteen Rockefellers, and twenty-eight du Ponts. In 2007, on the list's twentyfifth anniversary, these dynastic numbers had dwindled to almost nothing. There was one Rockefeller (David Rockefeller, Sr.), one Hunt (Ray Hunt), and no du Ponts. Fifty people fell off the list completely. Forty-five were newcomers—nearly half of whom had made their money in hedge funds and private equity (like Pete Peterson of Blackstone and David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group); the others were a mixed bag, including Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a pay-per-view fight fest.
The point, notes Columbia University researcher Wojciech Kopczuk, is not just that wealth is less concentrated (the share of wealth in the hands of the top 1 percent of Americans has fallen by half over the last eighty years). The real point is that it has moved into a whole new set of hands. Over the past twenty-five years, as these families have lost their historical positions, a whole new set of people has gotten rich. Some are entrepreneurs that have made a splash. Others are high earners on Wall Street, in corporate America, at law firms or consulting companies. Still others bought the right stocks (or were handed the right stock options) at particularly opportune times.
This is an incredibly optimistic sign—and it's not just coming from the pages of Forbes. According to the Harrison Group, a research firm in Connecticut, three-quarters of the wealthy families in this country—and nearly all of those who qualify as upper middle class— didn't start out wealthy. Eighty-three percent came from the middle class. They've accumulated wealth over fifteen years on average, which means that some of them got there in significantly less time than that. And here's a bonus: When you look at the wealth of the pentamillionaires (the folks with $5 million or more), only one-tenth of their money came from passive investments. They made the rest of it themselves.