WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) finds that the U.S. continues to suffer from the extreme and growing wealth and power of inherited-wealth family dynasties – and the growth of their extreme wealth accelerated during the pandemic.
The report, “Silver Spoon Oligarchs: How America’s 50 Largest Inherited-Wealth Dynasties Accelerate Inequality,” tracks the 50 wealthiest families from 1983 to 2020 using data from Forbes. IPS researchers found that by 2020, the 50 families had amassed $1.2 trillion in assets. For the 27 families on the Forbes 400 list in 1983, their combined wealth had grown by 1,007 percent and for the five wealthiest dynastic families, their wealth increased by a median 2,484 percent during 37 years. The Walton family led the pack with an increase of 4,320 percent, while the Mars candy family saw its wealth increase 3,517 percent.
“When we focus on the surging fortunes of first-generation billionaires – and their shocking tax avoidance – we forget to look at the troubling growth of dynastic families and the changes in tax policies that will enable the children of today’s billionaires to become tomorrow’s oligarchs,” said Chuck Collins, co-author of the report and author of the new book, The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions.
“In a healthy democratic society with a functioning tax system, wealth disperses over decades as people have children, pay their taxes, and give to charity. But with a weak tax system on wealth – as confirmed by the recent leak showing low billionaire taxes – we are now seeing wealth accelerate over generations, leading to consolidated wealth and power,” he said.
The report finds that inherited wealth dynasties are growing due to an inadequate tax system, excessive hiding of wealth in dynasty trusts, and low charitable giving by multi-generational wealth dynasties. It also finds that members of the inherited wealth generation are using their wealth and power to rig the rules to get more wealth and power. Some are even using their charitable donations and political giving to press for lower taxes.
Other key findings from the report include:
- Dynastic wealth grows much faster than the wealth of ordinary families. The 27 families who were on the Forbes 400 list in 1983 had a median increase in their net worth, adjusted for inflation, of 904 percent over those 37 years. In contrast, between 1989 and 2019—the most recent year available—the wealth of the typical family in the U.S. increased by just 93 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars.
- The wealth of the very top grew even faster. The five wealthiest dynastic families in the US have seen their wealth increase by a median 2,484 percent from 1983 to 2020. For example:
- In 1983, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton and his children were worth just $2.15 billion (or $5.6 billion in 2020 dollars). By the end of 2020, Walton’s descendants had a combined net worth of over $247 billion, an inflation-adjusted increase of 4,320 percent.
- The Mars candy dynasty has seen its wealth increase 3,517 percent over the past 37 years, from $2.6 billion in 1983 (in 2020 dollars) to $94 billion by 2020. The Mars family also stands out for the miniscule amount of money they have stored in family foundations—$48 million as of 2018—in contrast to the large sums they have spent on public policy advocacy to change tax laws.
- Cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder and her descendants have seen their wealth grow from just $1.6 billion in 1983 (in 2020 dollars) to $40 billion in 2020. This is a growth rate of 2,465 percent. A hefty portion of that growth has come in just the past five years: the Lauder family’s assets have grown 119 percent since 2015, for an average growth rate of 16.9 percent each year.
- Dynastic wealth is persistent and consolidating. Of the 20 wealthiest families on the list in 2020, 13 were already in the top 20 in 1983. Only 4 of the top 20 wealth dynasties are new to the list since 1983.
- Wealth for dynastic families has grown significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, the top 10 families on the Forbes dynasty list have had a median growth in their net worth of 25 percent.
- Dynastically wealthy families wield a great deal of political power, and use it to further their interests. The report profiles dynastic family members who spend millions lobbying for favorable tax, labor, and trade policies, give to candidates, campaigns and PACs, serve on policy advisory boards; and even serve in government themselves. For example, members of the Busch, Mars, Koch, and Walton families have together spent more than $120 million over the past ten years on lobbying directly for tax, labor, and trade policies favorable to their businesses and investments.
- Dynastic families exploit their philanthropic power too, through charities and foundations. The report examined more than 248 foundations set up by the top 50 families, housing more than $51 billion in assets. While many move much-needed revenue to broader public interest charities, others fund groups working to reduce taxes on the wealthy and roll back regulations that constrain corporate profits. Some funnel millions to donor-advised funds, which can fund dark-money political advocacy. And in a few cases, family members have used them to compensate themselves.
The report profiles all of the 50 families, including the Waltons, the Kochs, the Mars family, and many others, some well-known and some relatively unknown. The report explains the dangers from the extreme consolidation of dynastic wealth and power with sections such as:
- The dangers of dynastic wealth accumulation
- Immense and tenacious fortunes
- The political power of wealth dynasties
- Philanthropy as an extension of dynastic power
- The dynastiesThat might have been
A section of the report entitled, The Six Habits of Highly-Entrenched Dynasties, details how family dynasties hoard and protect their fortunes from taxes:
- Defeat any attempt to raise taxes on the wealthy
- Don’t give away too much to charity
- Form a family office to sequester wealth
- Create dynasty trusts and other loopholes to avoid estate and gift taxation (See the IPS Briefing Paper: “Dynasty Trusts: How the Wealthy Shield Trillions from Taxation Onshore.”)
- Use your wealth to promote self-serving public policy
- Weaponize your charitable giving to advance your dynastic interests
Solutions to the consolidated wealth and power examined in the report include:
- Existing Proposals:
- Greater oversight and enforcement by the IRS
- Emergency pandemic wealth tax
- Annual wealth tax
- Millionaire surtax
- Progressive estate tax
- Inheritance tax on heirs
- State level estate and wealth taxes
- New Proposals in the Report:
- Establish a federal rule against perpetuities
- Outlaw certain types of trusts
- Step up administrative actions by the executive branch
The report concludes:
“These trends are alarming for the health of a republic that aspires to widely held prosperity and opportunity. If we stay on our current trajectory, families of inherited wealth will exert ever more control over public policy and the public pocketbook. But we can choose to move in a new direction: to enact economic policies that strengthen society as a whole, ensuring equal opportunity and dignity for all, not just the very few.”
This report follows regular analyses from IPS on billionaire wealth gains during the pandemic, CEO pay, philanthropic giving and the racial wealth divide. In addition, recent reports have covered billionaire landlords and billionaire owners of companies with essential workers during the pandemic.
The Institute for Policy Studies is a multi-issue research center that has conducted ground-breaking research on inequality for more than 20 years. The IPS Program on Inequality and the Common Good, and the Inequality.org website, provide research, advocacy and policy development on issues related to economic inequality.