The Working Rich

by Kevin D. Williamson
The wealthiest Americans work for their money, and the poor could learn from them.

There is in Dallas an establishment called the Idle Rich Pub, where you can find an excellent plate of fish and chips but few if any actual idle rich folk, who seem to be scarce as hen’s teeth. There are plenty of rich people in and around Dallas, as a walk down Euclid Avenue in Highland Park will confirm, but unlike in New York City’s Upper East Side or San Francisco’s Mission District, Dallas’s outdoor cafes and boutiques are deserted on a typical weekday afternoon: Dallas’s rich are in the main the working rich. Dallas is no longer the Dallas of Dallas, but it still is a city in which the very well off are not at all shy about their money — there are plenty of Bentleys parked in front of the Mansion at Turtle Creek, because Dallas is the sort of place where rich people drive Bentleys and call their nicest hotel “the Mansion.” Those Bentleys belong to energy traders, hedge-fund geeks, restaurateurs, real-estate developers, dentists, importers, exporters — to the extent that there are trust-funders, they’re keeping a relatively low profile everywhere but the charity circuit. The Idle Rich Pub is owned by a man with a classic American success story — an immigrant who launched another pub that became so successful that it was too crowded for his taste, inspiring him to open a new place partly as an act of self-indulgence, thus the self-deprecating name.

The Idle Rich Pub is not the first Dallas drinking establishment by that name. As the Dallas Observer points out, there was another bar called the Idle Rich some years back, a hangout for newspaper reporters and “cops who, once over-served, would empty their revolvers into the moose head above the bar.” In a city of up-and-comers such as Dallas, it is hard not to see the professionals drinking $21 glasses of Macallan as the cultural (and perhaps in some cases literal) heirs of the blue-collar crowd at the old Idle Rich.

Rich America is a lot more like Dallas — and even more like relatively understated Houston — than it is like Fifth Avenue. Rich America is working America: Wealthy households contain on average more than four times as many full-time workers as do poor households, and, surprisingly, inherited wealth constitutes a smaller share of their assets than it does for middle-class and poor households. They live modestly relative to their means and for the most part do not work on Wall Street or as corporate executives. The caricature of the rich American as a child of privilege who inherited a fortune and spends his days shuttling between mansions in a private jet is largely a product of the imagination of such would-be class warriors as Elizabeth Warren and Robert Reich, neither of whom lives in Section 8 housing, or even downwind of it.

The relatively minor role of inherited money in the lives of wealthy Americans is worth examining in some detail. Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist from Vermont, has been known to complain indignantly that “today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America.” But that fact is rather less telling than Senator Sanders imagines it to be. Never mind the Waltons: If you have a net worth of $0.01, then your wealth exceeds that of the poorest quarter of Americans combined — their net worth begins in negative territory and tops out at $0.00.

The Waltons are not typical of rich America. Wealth transfers — inheritances and gifts combined — constitute a small part of the holdings of the rich, whether you define “rich” in terms of income or net worth. For the top income quintile, gifts and inheritances amount to 13 percent of household wealth, according to research published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For the top wealth quintile, they amount to 16 percent. For the hated “1 percent,” inherited wealth accounts for about 15 percent of holdings. Contrary to the story the Left likes to tell about economic inequality in the United States, those numbers have gone down over recent decades — by almost half for the wealthiest Americans. Meanwhile, inherited money makes up 43 percent of the wealth of the lowest income group and 31 percent for the second-lowest. In case our would-be class warriors are having trouble running the numbers here, that means that inherited money on net reduces wealth inequality in the United States (measured as a ratio) rather than exacerbating it; eliminating inherited wealth would have approximately twice as much of a negative effect on modest households as on wealthy ones.

There is a reason that money earned from work accounts for a relatively large share of the holdings of rich Americans: They work more — a lot more. While Census Bureau data document a very large gap in the prevalence of college degrees among the top 20 percent vs. the bottom 20 percent, there is an even larger and more significant gap — 60 percentage points — between full-time employment for householders in the top income group vs. the bottom income group. There is, to be sure, such a thing as the working poor, but the most salient characteristic of poor households is the lack of full-time workers in them. For the bottom income group, there is an average of 0.42 earners per household, with 68.2 percent of householders not working at all, as opposed to 1.97 earners per household and only 13.3 percent not working for the highest income group. The answer to poverty turns out to be “get a job,” after all — though that should be an aspiration toward which we assist the poor rather than a contemptuous dismissal of their needs.

Family matters. Not surprisingly, 78.4 percent of those highest-income families were married couples, as opposed to 17 percent for the lowest-income group. What this all means in brief is that the highest-income families are composed almost exclusively of two-earner households, the overwhelming majority of them married couples. Those who are inclined to see public policy mainly through green eyeshades may sniff at the social conservatives and their quaint worries about marriage, but there is a very strong connection between how we conduct our family lives and our economic outcomes — the very word “economy” derives from the Greek term for household administration, οἰκονομία. All the best people may roll their eyes at “tiger mom” Amy Chua’s admiration for Asian-American, Nigerian-American, and Mormon domestic culture, but it is difficult to dismiss the results.

This is not an invitation to moral crowing about the virtues of the rich — okay, maybe it is. The country would in fact be far better off if more people lived the way the top 20 percent do: married, working their butts off, saving and investing their money, and living within their means. (In his research for The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley found that the most popular make of automobile among the wealthy was not Ferrari or Mercedes but Ford, and that the most common Ford model owned by a millionaire was the F-150 pickup truck.)

But this is not just an invitation to moral crowing about the virtues of the rich. If one assumes that a very large portion of the poor would ceteris paribus prefer to be better off, then our analysis of the problem must begin by acknowledging that while there is significant inequality when it comes to income, the more radical and significant instance of inequality is in the opportunity to earn any income in the first place. Blaming the rich for the predicament of the poor is insupportable in the face of the data: If the Waltons dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, that would make no difference at all to the 68.2 percent of poor householders who have no work but cannot afford to be unemployed. It would simply create more unemployment, assuming the Waltons do not build their own houses and sew their own clothes.

While it would be uncharitable to begrudge the poor the money that is spent on them by the welfare state, especially considering that we spend a great deal more subsidizing the middle class, the fact is that as a practical matter we are running out of ways to spend money on the needy: We already pay for education, food, housing, job training, health care, heating, etc. There are a number of charitable organizations that exist for the sole purpose of providing poor people with appropriate clothes to wear to job interviews. But something is missing — that priceless thing that makes an immigrant into a valedictorian or a successful publican, that inspires people to make the most out of the opportunities afforded by a society that is, for all of its present difficulties, stuffed with them. It isn’t want of material aspiration: There’s a reason that Kanye West makes money singing about his money (“new watch alert” — seriously, that’s a lyric — fortunately, Hublot is easy to rhyme) and why they sell the Robb Report at Walmart. And it’s not just luxury goods: People want better lives — healthier, more productive, and more secure. How to get them there? Mitt Romney might have some ideas about that, but Americans got a good hard look at him in 2012 and said no.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.