How many Waltons would it take to buy the U.S. population?

There are a lot of ways to measure the rising inequality in wealth and income over recent years in our fair nation and Prof. Louis Johnston, who writes about economics for MinnPost, has done a much more serious job of it (here, here and here, for example.)

But, thanks to my friend who blogs under the name Pasquino, I stumbled on what you might call the Walton measure.

Apparently if you add together the net worth of the six wealthiest members of the Walton (as in Walmart) family, it equals the combined net worth of the least wealthy 30 percent of the U.S. population

Labor economist Sylvia Allegretto compiled the Walton measure by comparing the six top Waltons on the 2007 Forbes’ list of the wealthiest Americans  with the 2007 Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), a source for data on the income of ordinary Americans.

The SCF isn’t published every year, so Allegretto had to use 2007 figures for both. Forbes has released its 2011 figures on the super-rich and it turns out that despite the recession and slow recovery of recent years, the six Waltons saw their net worth grow from a combined $69.7 billion in 2007 to $93 billion in 2011.

I’m guessing the net worth of the bottom 30 percent hasn’t kept pace. Allegretto promises to update her measure when the new SCF comes out.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (23)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/08/2011 - 06:35 pm.

    If only the Waltons’ domestic servants – and the other members of the bottom 30% – would apply themselves, they, too, could end up multi-billionaires. That’s what some of us like to tell ourselves, anyway. Actually, the Waltons got their money the old-fashioned American way – they inherited it from Sam, and are simply riding the wave.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 12/08/2011 - 08:44 pm.

    Yes, but the poor dears are going to have to scam a whole lot more to get the net worth of the next 30%.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/08/2011 - 09:41 pm.

    In a free society, it shouldn’t matter to anyone but the envious and small-minded what other people own or how they acquired it.

    The rare exception is someone like Mark Dayton who’s shame over inheriting his wealth has caused him to try to confiscate everyone else’s to assuage his guilt.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2011 - 08:53 am.

    Curious…Taking a few moments from enslaving unfortunate wretches, Alice Walton recently turned her misanthropic wrath upon the hapless citizens of Bentonville Ark., by openening the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art.

    http://crystalbridges.org/

    Of course this has elicited spittle-flecked outrage among the more cultured elite of New York.

    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/06/crystal-bridges-museum-walmart.html

    Somehow the progressive, leading lights of those leftist strongholds don’t feel it is appropriate for the unwashed Arkansas hicks to be enjoying fine works of art.

  5. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/09/2011 - 10:09 am.

    In a free society it DOES matter when a very small group of people are able to arrange for their own massive enrichment for these reasons:

    1) such enrichment is always and inevitably accomplished through the comparative impoverishment of others.

    2) such outsized wealth inevitably grants those who hold it sufficient power to shape society in ways that guarantee further increases in their wealth and influence,…

    until the power they wield is sufficient that they are able to exert complete control.

    Thus does such accumulation of wealth, if allowed to go unchecked, inevitably result in a society where the only citizens who are “free” are the holders of that wealth, with everyone else enslaved, in one form or another, to those wealthy individuals.

    3) the motivation behind the acquisition of such wealth, especially, as is the case with the Waltons, where it is accomplished through the impoverishment of their own workers, suppliers, and customers (through the continuous reduction of quality in available goods),…

    is an easily-identifiable psychological dysfunction which renders such people incapable of ever feeling satisfied, and guarantees that they and other like-minded people will do everything in their power, up to and including destroying their own home nation, to accomplish #2.

    That some of us do not comprehend the dangers to all the citizens in any society where the accumulation of such extreme wealth and power is allowed to occur is a testament to either their own ignorance of human nature or their own dysfunctional psyches.

  6. Submitted by Rich Crose on 12/09/2011 - 11:35 am.

    If the American version of Capitalism were a race to a finish line, the bottom 99% would have a mile to run while top 1% would only have one inch to run. We don’t all start at the same place.

    Goldman Sacs offered Warren Buffett a guaranteed 10% return on a $6 billion investment in 2008. I got .02% on my money market fund. At that rate, it will take a million years for me to make what Warren made in 1 second.

    And you wonder why there’s inequity?

  7. Submitted by Thomas Eckhardt on 12/09/2011 - 11:38 am.

    “In a free society, it shouldn’t matter to anyone but the envious and small-minded what other people own or how they acquired it.”

    Well, it does matter somewhat when folks like the Waltons extort tax breaks for their stores, lobby for lower taxes for themselves, buy from China instead of the US and then push to keep wages for Americans low. Can you say “Class Warfare?”

  8. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/09/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    “1) such enrichment is always and inevitably accomplished through the comparative impoverishment of others.”

    Nonsense. Give an example.

    “2) such outsized wealth inevitably grants those who hold it sufficient power to shape society in ways that guarantee further increases in their wealth and influence”

    Nonsense. Walmart is a retail outlet that sells consumer products. Their customers CHOOSE to shop there. There are other options available to their customers and potential customers. Their wealth and success is the result of SATISFYING the needs of the public. If they didn’t, they’d be out of business.

    Unlike government which never goes out of business no matter how much power and wealth they accumulate from people who have no CHOICE but to comply or GO TO PRISON.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/09/2011 - 01:10 pm.

    Thomas Swift, an art museum or two does not make up for things like underpaying their workers, including forcing “off the clock” work; hiring illegal immigrants, first bragging about selling “made in USA” products and then forcing U.S. suppliers to lower prices below survivable levels and then turning to Chinese suppliers; underselling local retailers so that former business owners go bankrupt, taking out “dead peasant” policies on their employees, or offering “benefits” that the average employee can’t afford.

    This “rich people generous and hardworking, poor people lazy and immoral” notion that is common among right-wingers is as simplistic as “four legs good, two legs bad.”

  10. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/09/2011 - 01:53 pm.

    The problem has nothing to do with jealousy and envy. Broaden your mind.

    Concentration of power threatens democracy AND freedom. Your freedom is at risk when so few have so much power.

    It is not about distributing wealth either. It is about re-investing in things that help people rise above where they were born. Investing in education, infrastructure, research, and health.

    So no, this is not about anyone wanting more money. I do not want one darn penny of theirs. What I want is for us to start investing in America again.

    Our founders were very, very clear. Concentration of economic wealth is a direct threat to our democracy.

  11. Submitted by Alec Timmerman on 12/09/2011 - 01:55 pm.

    Why is it that conservatives are terrified of concentration of government power, but they cannot see the very same threat to freedom by concentration of economic power. At least when government gets too powerful they are accountable to us. Who is powerful enough to hold private power in check if government is drowned in a bath tub?

  12. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/09/2011 - 03:38 pm.

    “Why is it that conservatives are terrified of concentration of government power, but they cannot see the very same threat to freedom by concentration of economic power.”

    Because Bill Gates can’t put me in jail for not buying Windows. Government power comes with force and/or incarceration.

    The only power corporations have is the power you are willing to give them through the purchase of their products. They can’t force you to do anything.

    Compare that to what happens to you if you don’t pay your income or property taxes.

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2011 - 03:42 pm.

    “an art museum or two does not make up for things like underpaying their workers”

    Underpaid, according to who? What’s the going rate for skilled shelf stockers these days, anyway?

    “including forcing “off the clock” work”

    “Forcing”? Is there a threat of violence? Are they chained to the wall? Please explain how an American citizen is forced to work.

    “hiring illegal immigrants”

    You mean hired contractors that hired illegal immigrants:

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,150846,00.html

    “first bragging about selling “made in USA” products and then forcing U.S. suppliers to lower prices below survivable levels”

    Forcing; again. And again the same questions; violence or captivity..how is any US company forced to sell their products to anyone?

    “underselling local retailers so that former business owners go bankrupt”

    That’s what happens in business. And it’s a damn shame we can’t buy a Hudson sedan anymore isn’t it?

    “taking out “dead peasant” policies on their employees”

    Like Sallie Mae; Northern States Power; Walgreens; Xcel Energy; Panera Bread and at least 100 others?

    http://deadpeasantinsurance.com/which-employers-bought-policies-on-the-lives-of-employees/

    “offering “benefits” that the average employee can’t afford”

    Well, that’s an easy one to fix, isn’t it?

  14. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/09/2011 - 05:06 pm.

    Lately I just find myself wondering where the line is. When the day comes where one guy has all of the wealth and the rest of us have nothing, will they still be chastising us for our “enviousness” or will they say, “hey, wait a minute, something’s a little strange here.” I guess the former.

  15. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 12/09/2011 - 05:36 pm.

    For those bearing a certain set of psychological dysfunctions which I’ve frequently described,…

    NO AMOUNT of evidence will cause them to allow ideas which do not fit the ways their dysfunctions force them to see and understand the world in order to feel comfortable living in it,…

    to enter their awareness.

    All such countervailing facts and evidence are simply dismissed out of hand for they cannot possibly be considered lest that entire dysfonic “conservative” worldview collapse in upon itself,…

    crushing, as it does, the sense of comfortable well being of those holding the “conservative” viewpoint to the absolute exclusion of the consideration of any other options.

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/09/2011 - 07:10 pm.

    That’s not really fair, Greg…give Karen a chance to check the evidence over before making judgements.

    BTW, I have to question your qualifications for making diagnosis of psychological dysfunctions under any circumstances.

  17. Submitted by Tim Milner on 12/09/2011 - 09:20 pm.

    Nearly all the wealth in the Walton family is the result of the appreciation in the value of their stock and the dividends that the stock pays.

    So, how did this happen?

    In 1970, Walmart offered 300,000 shares of its common stock to the public at a price of $16.50/share. Today, there are 3.45 BILLION shares in the market at ~$50/share. How did that happen?

    Basic supply and demand is the answer.

    Because people wanted to buy the stock as an investment. The supply of stock is limited. The more people want the stock (because of potential appreciation and the dividend payout) the more valuable it becomes. Stock splits increased the number of shares available, but it did not keep pace with the demand for shares. As the stock price grew, so too did the value of the family’s holdings.

    If you really want to reduce the Walton family wealth, an easy start would be to demand that your own investments dump Walmart stock. That would create more supply and maybe decrease the price (and the value of the family holdings) if others, too, avoid the stock.

    As Mr. Swift points out, many people buy from Walmart (I personal don’t – unless I have no option due to exclusive products). But many like the low pricing. It’s their choice that drives the Walmart earnings that provide the money to pay the dividends.

    Again, if you feel that too much wealth is going to the Walmart family, stop buying at Walmart. If enough do so, it will effect earnings, lower the dividend, and diminish the family wealth.

    Here’s the link to Walmart Investor Relations

    http://investors.walmartstores.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=112761&p=irol-irhome

    You will learn a lot including how much stock is NOT controlled by the family (a LOT) and how many employees own stock (another LOT).

    Not to defend any Walmart practice (again, I try to avoid the place), but it would be difficult to find ANY public company that is NOT getting some form of tax break or government incentive. That is why our tax code ran a mere 72,000+ pages in 2011. (up from 20,000 pages in 1980 – the last time tax “simplification” was really attempted) Why so many pages? Mainly to cover all the tax exceptions.

    I would be happy to sign up for a 10 page tax code eliminating all these exceptions. That might make me a minority within Republican circles, but so be it. But I would much rather Americans make the choice on who win/loses in the market place based on their purchase decisions than I am in Government make that decision.

  18. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/09/2011 - 10:07 pm.

    “When the day comes where one guy has all of the wealth and the rest of us have nothing”

    The only way one guy can get all your wealth is for you to give it to him voluntarily. Unless that guy is from the government.

  19. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/09/2011 - 10:15 pm.

    @#13 Mr. Swift: One of the things you and Mr. Tester and other “conservatives” argue is that laws like the minimum wage and the Fair Labor Standards Act, which prevent employers from exploiting their employees, are wrong and interfere with “market forces.” Is it your position that without these laws, employees (like shelf stockers) would not be “forced” to work at much lower rates of pay or much longer hours at such rates? Please explain how the future under such conditions would not repeat just the reasons such laws were enacted in the first place?

    Most people in this country would consider the threat of losing their employment if they did not comply with some edict from a superior as being “forced” into doing something. I thought the blacklist proved that, if the whole history of US labor law and relations did not. Or maybe you and Mr. Tester think it’s no big deal if you’re forced out of your job, your home, your family and forced to live in below poverty line conditions in the US.

  20. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/10/2011 - 08:25 pm.

    When I first read the title of Eric’s piece, I thought it was a “how many [butt of your joke here] does it take to change a light bulb”? kind of column. But Eric asks a serious question which is really [possibly intentionally] ambiguous, because Wal-Mart the multinational conglomerate is not the same as the heirs of Sam Walton who own a sizable, though apparently not controlling, interest in the conglomerate. Eric’s question is about “inherited wealth” and the right of the original ancestor to perpetuate that wealth over multiple generations. Interestingly, the Rockefellers are not mentioned or we might discuss how John D. Rockefeller who more or less stole a huge fortune was able to perpetuate this fortune for more or less six generations and still counting.

    The great philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who otherwise was more capitalistic than Adam Smith, argued in favor of “escheating” inherited wealth. Bentham was a classic utilitarian. His underlying principle was “greatest happiness for the greatest number”. If Bentham can see no principled basis for inherited wealth, neither can I. If there is no principled basis for objecting to an estate or inheritance tax that reverts wealth back to the public over a time, it should be law. We are opposed to establishing aristocracies in this country.

  21. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/10/2011 - 08:35 pm.

    Tim–
    Some good points.
    Personally, I am more concerned with the wealth and power of the WalMart -corporation- than I am with the Walton -family-.
    Your observations on stock ownership are valid, but is does not take control of a majority of shares of a corporation’s stock to control it if many of the shares are owned diffusely by employees or small investors.
    Question: do part time WalMart employees (I believe the majority) own much stock?

    Finally, like you I prefer not to shop at Walmart (or at Target, whose labor practices are similar) when policy. I prefer to patronize smaller regional operations such as Shopko.

  22. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/11/2011 - 01:18 pm.

    “Most people in this country would consider the threat of losing their employment if they did not comply with some edict from a superior as being “forced” into doing something.”

    I’m sure that’s true among “most people” you happen to socialize with Jon, but the fact is that more people laugh at that contention.

    For your enlightenment, I offer an example of what genuine forced labor is all about….notice that WalMart, Koch Industries, G.E., Siemens A.G. nor any other private industry are mentioned in any context…it’s the guys with the guns i.e., government:

    http://gulaghistory.org/nps/onlineexhibit/stalin/

  23. Submitted by dan buechler on 12/11/2011 - 06:19 pm.

    If Icarius fell into the sea, for he flew too close to the sun would you notice?

Leave a Reply