How much wealth for women? More than 1%

Stop me when you’re convinced women own more than 1% of all the world’s wealth.

There is a real problem with this women-own-just-1%-of-all-wealth thing. It’s not just that it represents a failure of education in the areas of ballpark-demography and statistical critical-thinking. It’s that people who fall for it aren’t realizing how rich the rich countries are — including the women in them — in the global scheme of things. Like I said at the beginning of this, if global feminist unity is to be had, it won’t be built on a shared poverty experience.

Since people keep asking, I decided to give up on the argument that this needs no refuting, and spend an hour proving it can’t possibly be true, that it must be off by large orders of magnitude. (Well, it was an hour to find the data, but working it all out took a little longer.)

If you need to catch up first, these are the posts in this series so far:

March 1: Stop that viral statistic meme.

April 29: What is the 1% meme solution?

September 20: Follow the bouncing 1% meme…

OK, here goes.

Exhibit A: from U.N. Development Programme’s website

Claim: Women own 1% of all property in the world

This is the original claim from the editor’s introduction to the journal World at Work in 1978. And according to the rationale later written by that editor, Krishna Ahooja-Patel, the number was derived from a (dubious) estimate that women earned 11% of income, and therefore “they do not normally have any surplus to invest in reproducible or non-reproducible assets.”

Various people have since changed “property” to “land” or even “titled land” — never with any research that I have seen — I guess to make it seem more reasonable, but it’s clear from this context that the original claim was about total assets, or what is normally called wealth or net worth.

Debunking strategy: Find a small group of women who own more than 1% of world wealth.

This is much simpler than trying to estimate the actual share of world wealth owned by women. If any small group of women owns more than 1%, that should put the matter to rest. (Dream on.) If someone else can figure out the details for all the other women in the world, that would be great.

I decided to figure out the wealth owned by single women in the U.S. That’s because U.S. data are pretty good and available, the women are pretty rich (in the scheme of things) so they’re likely to satisfy the goal, and single women are simpler because you don’t have to worry about shared wealth. (If married men and women share their wealth equally, the whole women-own-1% thing is obviously impossible, and anything else requires a rule for arbitrarily separating husbands’ and wives’ wealth. And for simplicity I set aside the question of government-owned assets, which are arguably part of “the world’s wealth,” too.)

Looking for a few rich women.

Evidence:

1. World wealth held by households is $181 trillion.

I got that from a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by James Davies and colleagues. They estimated mean global household per capita wealth in 2000 was $29,738. With a global population of 6.09 billion, that means global wealth was $181 trillion.

2. U.S. household wealth is $40 trillion.

Davies et al. have a figure of $144,000 household wealth per person for the U.S. in 2000, which yields an estimate of $40.4 trillion. I believe the basis for that U.S. estimate is the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances. The tables there for 2001 show average household net worth was $397,000. With a Census estimate of 108 million households in 2001, that would be $43 trillion, so it’s pretty close. I use those tables for the calculations below because they break it down by household type.

(Before you say these seems too high, remember these are means, not medians, so the very rich are in there too — and the top 100 individuals in the U.S. alone today have about $953 billion, which is more than $3,000 per person right off the top.)

3. Unmarried women own 7% to 13% of U.S. household wealth.

A 2006 paper by Alexis Yamokoski and Lisa Keister, published in Feminist Economics, used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (now grown up) to estimate net worth. They found an average of $160,000 per adult, and single women had mean net worth of $63,000 in 2000 dollars. Single women were 17% of that sample, so their share adds up to 7.2% of the total. Their figure is lower per person, but the breakdown allows a reasonable guess of the share held by single women.

Using the Federal Reserve Board numbers is tricky because they didn’t differentiate between single men and single women. Also, they only report on households, not individuals. But using their categories, I can make a good guess. They reported mean net worth of:

  • $95,800 for single parents with children (of which there were 11.1 million who were women, according to Census data)
  • $151,400 for single householders under age 55 without children (8.5 million women)
  • $290,400 for single householders age 55+ without children. (10.6 million women)

If single women had the same net worth as single men, these figures would give them a total of $5.4 trillion. Is that reasonable? In Tamokoski and Keister’s paper the mean net worth of single fathers ($48,000) is about the same as single mothers ($47,000), and among those without children single women actually have higher net worth ($111,000 versus $95,000) — which is not crazy when you consider all those older women widows, and that richer men are more likely to marry (and remarry). So I’ll say women’s net worth is equal to the average for each category.

If that $5.4 trillion is correct, then, relative to the total in the Federal Reserve Board wealth estimate of $43 trillion, single women own 12.7% of all household wealth.

4. Single women in the U.S. own 1.6% to 3.0% of world household wealth.

To review:

  • World wealth:  $181 trillion
  • U.S. wealth: $40 trillion
  • Share of U.S. wealth held by single women: 7.2% to 12.7%.

Thus, my range of estimates for share of world wealth held by U.S. single women is between 1.6% (7.2% of $40 trillion as percentage of $181 trillion) and 2.8% (12.7% of $40 trillion as percentage of $181 trillion).

Conclusion

So, by my lowest estimate, no matter how much the billions of other women in the world own — all married women in the U.S., all single and married women in every other country on earth — women own more than 1%.

Richy Rich addendum

OK, wealth is very, very concentrated. So a sample survey such as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth won’t catch the very richest people — even if they answered the survey, their numbers would be so extreme as to be considered suspect by the analysts. How big a difference could this make?

There are 42 women in the latest Forbes list of the richest 400 Americans, from Christy Walton (net worth $24.5 billion), down through Oprah ($2.7 billion) to the poorest, Campbell Soup’s Charlotte Weber ($1.3 billion). Together, these women alone are worth $172 billion, which is 0.1% of world wealth — that’s one-tenth of the meme’s total for all women in the world!

Just a little further away, in Europe, L’Oreal empress Lillian Bettencourt is worth $13.4 billion, and BMW heiress Susan Klatten is worth $10 billion. Etc. Yes, women are very underrepresented among the super rich, but the few that there are do a lot to push “all women” past the lowly threshold of 1%.

Lillian Bettencourt: $13B large.

Can I stop now?

18 Comments

Filed under Me @ work

18 responses to “How much wealth for women? More than 1%

  1. beth

    just FYI it’s Alexis Yamokoski with a Y not a T.

    otherwise, I am liking this set of blog posts and I’m thinking about ways to include it in my research methods class this quarter. thanks!

  2. For a wealth — ba dum bum — of data on gender differences in wealth in the US by marital status, age, and asset type, see http://www.mariko-chang.com/wealthdata.html. (I presume these data are in Chang’s “Shortchanged”, too.)

    Not denying your broader point, incidentally.

    • Thanks. Looks like she is using the same source: Survey of Consumer Finances (and those charts and tables only report medians — which is right for comparing individuals, but doesn’t let you add them up to totals).

  3. negative wealth

    What about debt, or negative wealth? Theoretically you could find one group of women who own more than 1% but have another group of women who have negative wealth.

    • Right. Hopefully negative values were part of the means from my sources. But you’re right I should have said this: no matter how much the billions of other women in the world own — all married women in the U.S., all single and married women in every other country on earth — as long as it’s positive in total women own more than 1%.

  4. Last Sunday I heard this 1% statistic for the first time, and my BS-detector immediately sprang into action. So I went searching the internet, and found several reports of the same statistic, most recently in conjunction with the 2012 World Bank Human Development Report. So I downloaded the report (http://go.worldbank.org/CQCTMSFI40) but I couldn’t find anything in it about women’s share of global wealth! The only thing it contained was a reference to some research on women’s wealth in developing countries, which said it was very hard to get decent data. (See http://www.wider.unu.edu/publications/working-papers/research-papers/2006/en_GB/rp2006-115/_files/78091814462294202/default/rp2006-115.pdf) Off searching I went again, and found lots of websites repeating the 1% claim, but with no references. Eventually I found your blog – thank you very much for debunking this, as you have saved me lots of time doing it again!

  5. Pingback: International Women’s Day breathes new life into the 1% meme « Family Inequality

  6. Pingback: A little geographic and demographic awareness might squelch the 1% meme « Family Inequality

  7. Pingback: Nice graphic, bad info in gender inequality infographic « Family Inequality

  8. Pingback: How the 1% meme obscures global inequality « Family Inequality

  9. Pingback: What Women Own: U.S. Business Edition; How the 1% meme obscures global inequality « Welcome to the Doctor's Office

  10. Pingback: Women and climate change (good point, coupla bad facts) « Family Inequality

  11. Pingback: The zombie stat that sucks the brains from development « Heteronormative patriarchy for men

  12. Pingback: A one-percent-meme-less International Women’s Day? | Family Inequality

  13. jama

    Thank you for alerting to the unreliability of the said 1% story. But why the mean global household income $29,738 is multiplied by the number of individuals, not the number of households in the world? Are all calculations in this material credible?

  14. I find it funny how they use 1% for owned property and try to make all men feel like shit over it. The united states is no different from the Roman Empire roughly one third of our country is owned by women. If you don’t like that your gender is treated poorly in OTHER countries then grab guns, start an army, and go fight for yourself. God knows men have done just that long enough. How many crusades happened again? Three or four?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s