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What's Different About Today's Rich?

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"Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.... They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are. They are different."

- F. Scott Fitzgerald

The quote from a short story, "Rich Boy," by this American author notes one characteristic of perhaps some of the rich. Economist Edward Wolff has more to say about the demography and financial status of the more-than-prosperous. For one thing, the rich of today are more likely to have earned their wealth with entrepreneurial activity. Those who live high by clipping bond coupons are a shrinking lot.

Half of the wealthy inherit wealth; Their average inheritance was $782,000 in 1992. "They aren't starting from nothing," notes the New York University professor, who is perhaps the nation's top authority on the well-to-do.

Responding to Fitzgerald, author Ernest Hemingway agreed the rich are different: "Yes, they have more money," he wrote. Indeed they do. Look at the top 1 percent, about 1 million American households. Their average wealth in 1995 was $7.9 million. Their average income was $625,000.

Asked to describe a typical rich person, Professor Wolff says he is 55 to 74, a college graduate, perhaps with a post-graduate degree, white, married, working full time, self-employed, and healthy.

Many find the wealthy fascinating. The book, "The Millionaire Next Door," by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko, has been a bestseller for months.

Considering that interest, readers may not mind a few statistics. They show that the rich are changing in their characteristics. The analysis comes largely from an academic paper Wolff prepared for a recent conference at the University of Michigan Business School. He uses data for 1983 and 1992, not having pulled out detail from more recent data for 1995. The Census Bureau surveys income and wealth every three years, with the latest scheduled for this year.

* Women are just starting to enter the ranks of the rich on their own.


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