Social Security and Trends in Wealth Inequality
74 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2020 Last revised: 30 Aug 2021
Date Written: February 29, 2020
Recent influential work finds large increases in inequality in the U.S. based on measures of wealth concentration that notably exclude the value of social insurance programs. This paper revisits this conclusion by incorporating Social Security retirement benefits into measures of wealth inequality. We find that top wealth shares have not increased in the last three decades when Social Security is properly accounted for. This finding is robust to assumptions about how taxes and benefits may change in response to system financing concerns. When discounted at the risk-free rate, real Social Security wealth increased substantially from $4.9 trillion in 1989 to $52.6 trillion in 2019. When we adjust the discount rate for long-run macroeconomic risk, this increase remains sizable, growing from over $4.0 trillion in 1989 to $41.2 trillion in 2019. Consequently, by 2019, Social Security wealth represents 59% of the wealth of the bottom 90% of the wealth distribution.
Keywords: Social Security, Inequality, Top Wealth Shares
JEL Classification: D31, E21, G51, H55, N32
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