Interactive visualization highlights the growing disparity between the very rich and very poor in the United States

February 14, 2023

Contact: Jon Meerdink ([email protected])

ANN ARBOR — Researchers at the University of MIchigan’s Institute for Social Research (ISR) have released a novel visualization of the largedisparity in the wealth distribution in the United States.

Fabian Pfeffer, an associate professor of sociology and the director of the Stone Center for Inequality Dynamics, and Asher Dvir-Djerassi, a Ph.D. candidate in public policy and sociology, published the interactive visualization through Socius, the American Sociological Association’s open-access journal. Though others have commented on wealth inequality in the United States, the pair believes the interactivity of the visualization is particularly valuable.

“I think the visualization lends itself to something that academic papers typically do not support, which is the ability for the user to see the full complexity of the distribution,” said Dvir-Djerassi. “For instance, the tool that allows you to zoom in on different features or areas of the distribution, which gives you a sense of how extraordinarily disparate points on the distribution are.”

The visualization includes wealth data from the Forbes 400, which is often excluded because of the extent to which it can skew the distribution. That was the point, according to Pfeffer.

“Quite frankly, despite having done research on wealth for a long time, it is still challenging for me to develop an intuitive understanding of just how extreme inequality is at the top,” he said. “I’ve seen these numbers for a long time, but you sort of need to see them in this kind of setting to fully appreciate the depth of inequality. It’s just off the charts.”

Pfeffer and Dvir-Djerassi drew their primary data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, which features a stratified random sample  of U.S. households, and added in information from the Forbes 400 to create a fuller picture of the wealth distribution. Including both sets of data leads to a better understanding of the true concentration of wealth at the top — and its relationship to the lack of wealth and indebtedness at the bottom.

“There may be a causal relationship between those two,” said Pfeffer. “People normally don’t like to talk about zero sum games. But the fact that an increasing share of the population is in debt or has no assets at all and a very small segment of the population is increasing their wealth, those things may actually be tied together.”

“We have to understand that wealth inequality is extreme in many ways, that it entails related but different aspects,” added Pfeffer. “There is very high wealth concentration at the top, while there’s also radical inequality among the remaining 99%. And I think having both of those things in mind at the same time is important because sometimes the conversation only goes to one or the other.”

The visualization and related comments are available via Socius. View the fully interactive version of the chart here.

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