06/26/2022

Owning your own home doesn’t make you rich. Owning somebody else’s does.

In the United States more than almost anywhere else, wealth and income are concentrated among business owners and landlords. And that club, blessed by capitalism, is becoming increasingly difficult to join.

Business owners and landlords tend to be about four times as wealthy as the average American. That’s more than almost any other country included in a new study. On the other end of the spectrum, renters in the United States tend to have about an eighth as much wealth as the average American.

In the recent working paper, Austrian central bank economists Pirmin Fessler and Martin Schürz used a long-running U.S. wealth survey and its newer European counterpart to compare wealth across continents. It’s one of the first such comparisons to look at wealth in terms of what people use it for, rather than at arbitrary percentile cutoff points. The widest inequalities, they find, are between groups inside countries, not across country borders.

In their analysis, they split households into three groups. Homeowners, whose primary wealth is also their primary residence, form the bulk of the middle and upper middle class. Business owners and landlords (about 15 percent of U.S. households), tend to be among the wealthiest. Their wealth is typically used to generate additional income. Those who pay to rent their residences (about 35 percent of households), and whose wealth is typically used to cover needs such as emergency expenses or retirement, fill out the bottom of the spectrum. They’re joined by homeowners and business owners whose debt exceeds their equity.

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