Wealth inequality does not get nearly the attention it deserves, and nothing like the focus on income inequality.
It's the hand-wringing over the role played by out-of-control executive pay that has given us things like the required disclosure of the ratio of what the CEO got vs. the typical worker.
Chief executive pay that might be worth 365 times the median worker's pay is difficult to even write about without calling the whole thing absurd.
Looking at wealth is another way to think about disparity.
One of the ways you might have heard of wealth inequality lately is with the so-called wealth gap, a way to describe the chasm between the average household wealth of Black Americans and the wealth of white households. As much of the world learned in the weeks following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, seemingly progressive and affluent Minnesota has a particularly bad case of this problem.
Family wealth is just net worth, the value of what a family owns after subtracting what they owe, like mortgages and car loans. Accumulated wealth can be used to fund college educations, provides a cushion for big financial or economic shocks (like the one we're now experiencing) and can help kids and grandkids get a financial head start.
The big wealth gap with Black households persists at almost every stage of life and really only closes for Black households at the bottom of the income ladder, because on average none of the lowest income households have virtually any wealth at all.
Part of this persistent problem at first may seem a little puzzling, because even with Black families in the Top 10% by income, their net worth lags white families in the same income bracket. Yet research has shown how that happens, including that Black people are far less likely to have inherited much from a previous generation. So when measuring wealth now, family wealth back in 1980 or 1960 matters, too.
A great example of the differences here in Minnesota is with homeownership, a proven way for families to build up some wealth with enough time. The homeownership rate here in the Twin Cities metro area for white households has hung in there about 75% since 2000, but for Black families it's actually declined from an already far lower rate, slipping to just 25% as of the latest data.
Without a windfall, inheritance or rare success in business, there's really only one way to build net worth as a family, and that's simply to spend less than people make. That's obviously a lot easier to do at ever-higher levels of income.
So far this century, only upper-income families have seen their wealth grow, at least according to an analysis published this year by the Pew Research Center. Households in the middle and lower tiers of income have gone backward. The upper tier of families by income have seen their share of total wealth grow from about 60% in 1983 to closer to 80% as of the most recent data, according to Pew.
In this report, Pew defined upper income as at least twice the median household income, adjusted for household size and other factors, but call it about $141,000 in Minnesota. Just to put that $141,000 "upper income" household income in some context, the average annual pay of the executives at UnitedHealth Group, Minnesota's largest company by sales and market value, was $11.9 million.
What falls under disclosed executive pay can be complicated and doesn't always mean bigger checking-account balances right away. But it won't take many years of work at $11.9 million to have enough to ensure that the kids and grandkids will all be wealthy, too.
One outstanding example in recent history of an employee, not owner or founder, getting fantastically rich is Steve Ballmer. In 1980 he dropped out of business school to join a young software company called Microsoft for a $50,000 annual salary, eventually retiring as the CEO. His $73.5 billion in estimated net worth places him sixth on Bloomberg's billionaires ranking.
Lots of talented and hardworking people can become really good managers yet still not get promoted into executive ranks, as the path leading up narrows so much. Yet at last count there were just four Black CEOs in the companies that make up the Fortune 500, a level of representation that just rounds up to 1%.
As it turns out, the percentage of Black employees slips as you look at ever higher levels of management, as described by a McKinsey & Co. report based on 279 companies from 2018.
At the entry level of professional work, white men make up about 36% of the class and Black men just 4%. By the time careers progress to senior manager or director, terms broadly used for middle management jobs in American corporations, the percentage held by Black men has been cut in half.
The percentage held by white men, meanwhile, has moved up to 52%.
By the time they reach the C-suite, McKinsey found, those executive jobs with "chief" in the title like chief marketing officer, more than two-thirds of those offices are occupied by white men. Meanwhile, the percentage of those jobs held by Black men is just 2%, and more like 1% for Black women.
The difference in pay between these various layers can be a lot, by the way, easily into six figures at the biggest companies between what a director gets paid and the vice president just up the organization chart. If a career tops out as a director rather than a senior vice president, it doesn't take that long for the after-tax, cumulative difference to get well into seven figures.
Meanwhile here in Minnesota, the 50 executives on our executive-compensation list realized $378 million in total compensation last year.
As none of them are Black, that well-paid year at work for this group obviously did not have much of an impact on closing our state's persistent wealth gap.