The distribution of wealth and the degree of wealth inequality are notoriously hard to measure. Governments generally don't keep records of the distribution of wealth. (This contrasts with the distribution of earnings which is well known from tax data. The distribution of incomes of the self-employed and of incomes from asset ownership is as hard to measure as the wealth distribution.)
One important source of data on the distribution of wealth in the United States is the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). It forms the basis of the calculations on this website. The SCF is normally a triennial interview survey of U.S. families sponsored by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System with the cooperation of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. (Similar data for the countries of the Eurozone have recently become available for the first time thanks to a survey coordinated by the European Central Banks, called the Eurosystem Household Finance and Consumption Survey (HFCS). The HFCS forms the basis of the Eurozone versions of this website.)
The SCF questionnaire consists of:
- questions relating to the household as a whole, including questions on real assets and their financing, other liabilities/credit constraints, private businesses, financial assets, intergenerational transfers and gifts, and consumption and saving,
- and questions relating to individual household members, covering demographics (for all household members), employment, future pension entitlements and income.
Table 1 provides an overview of the household balance sheet which is calculated based on these questions. The SCF is expected to provide reliable information both on attributes that are broadly distributed in the population (such as homeownership) and on those that are highly concentrated in a relatively small part of the population (such as closely held businesses). To address this requirement, the SCF employs a sample design, essentially unchanged since 1989, consisting of two parts: a standard, geographically based random sample and a special oversample of relatively wealthy families. Weights are used to combine information from the two samples to make estimates for the full population. In the 2010 survey, 6,492 families were interviewed.
Table 1: SCF household balance sheet
|+ Real Assets||Real Estate||Household main residence|
|Other real estate|
|+ Financial Assets||Deposits||Sight accounts|
|Money owed to the household as private loans|
|Private pension plans|
|Other||Options, futures, royalties, etc.|
|- Debt||Collateralized||Household main residence|
|Other real estate property|
|Non-collateralized||Credit cards / overdraft|
|= Net wealth|
Source: Codebook for 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances
Further background on the distribution of wealth, the SCF data, and the HFCS data can be found at:
Davies, J. B. and Shorrocks, A. F. (2000). The distribution of wealth. Handbook of income distribution, 1: 605–675.
Ackerman, R. A., Fries, G., and Windle, R. A. (2012). Changes in US Family Finances from 2007 to 2010: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances. Federal Reserve Bulletin., http://www.norc.org/PDFs/scf12.pdf.
Federal Reserve (2013). SCF index page., http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/scf/scfindex.htm.
HFCS Network (2013a). Household Finance and Consumption Network (HFCN). About the Survey, http://www.ecb.eu/home/html/researcher_hfcn.en.html.
HFCS Network (2013b). The Eurosystem Household and Consumption Survey. Results from the first wave, http://www.ecb.europa.eu/pub/pdf/other/ecbsp2en.pdf.