The richest Americans are much less likely to have inherited their wealth than their counterparts in many supposedly more egalitarian countries. They’re not remarkably rich in degrees from elite universities. Rich Democrats have more social connections than rich Republicans.
These are some surprising insights from a new study of the very wealthy by Jonathan Wai of Duke University and David Lincoln of Wealth-X, based on data on 18,245 individuals with a net worth of $30 million or more.
The study portrays high-net-worth individuals as a more idiosyncratic and diverse group than reductionist cliches about “the 1 percent” might suggest.
Looking globally, extreme wealth is most closely connected to elite education in South Korea, Chile, and South Africa, and least so in Ukraine and Qatar. The U.S. is near the bottom of the top third of the country rankings for the tightness of this connection. Germany is close to the bottom, reflecting how German paths to riches run through forms of manufacturing and medium-sized business that are not so closely tied to elite higher education.
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The economic sectors where the very wealthy are most closely connected to elite education are hedge funds, venture capital, the internet, law and finance. Those fields may require greater smarts, better training and stronger elite social connections. Real estate, automobiles, leisure products and mining were the sectors least-closely connected to elite education. Many of us have an image of those enterprises as more hands-on, more connected to the retail experience (except mining), and possibly lower in social prestige.
Inside the group of very wealthy Americans, the relationship between wealth and elite education is extremely weak. So going to Harvard may help you get into this club, but it doesn’t seem to boost your chances of climbing to its top.
For all the talk of Sweden and Austria as relatively egalitarian societies, they are also the countries where the greatest proportion of high-net-worth individuals inherited their wealth: 43.8 percent and 49.6 percent, respectively. In the U.S., inherited wealth accounts for only 12.6 percent of the very wealthy individuals in the study’s sample.
The married set of very wealthy people are the best educated, the least likely to give away money and the least likely to have inherited their money. Surprisingly, the separated and divorced have on average higher net worth than the married. We don’t yet know if they work harder to make up the loss from divorce, whether the wealthiest people are more likely to divorce in the first place, or if other factors account for the difference.