NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Millions Of New Millionaires

January 19, 1999

America has a record number of millionaires and billionaires, many of whom made their fortunes overnight in the 1990s. But recent $100 million-plus sports contracts and multibillion dollar legal fees for attorneys aren't that unusual, or even, comparatively, the biggest money America has seen, says Boston College sociologist Paul G. Schervish.

However, what is new is the presence of so many people with a lot of money, says Schervish, director of the Social Welfare Research Institute.

  • America had 4.8 million millionaires in 1996, according to Payment Systems Inc., or as few as 3 million by more conservative estimates.
  • One of every 36 American workers is a millionaire, according to the Texas Banking Association, which puts the millionaire total at 3.5 million, out of about 126 million workers.

The great majority became millionaires recently, and most people say there was poverty in their family two generations ago, says Schervish.

  • About 70 percent of them earn 80 percent of their household income, say Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, authors of "The Millionaire Next Door."
  • Two-thirds work 45 to 55 hours a week, and their wealth rests less on earnings than holdings.

"Material wealth has the potential to lead to spiritual wealth," says Schervish, as people's tastes change to loftier goals. For instance, by some measures, charitable giving is growing dramatically.

Compared to national output, the largest fortunes were made in the 18th and 19th centuries. American Heritage magazine's list of the 40 richest Americans of all time is topped by Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, with $189.6 billion in today's equivalent value; steel magnate Andrew Carnegie is second with $100.5 billion; and Microsoft's Bill Gates is only fifth.

Source: Christine Wicker, "Big Bucks? Big Deal," Dallas Morning News, January 17, 1999.


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