Ten percent of the households in this country at the end of 2019—just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit—had a net wealth of more than $1.3 million, according to a report published last month by the Census Bureau.

There were also definite patterns among households that had higher wealth and those that had less.

In fact, traditional American values and achieving the American financial dream appear to be linked.

Specifically, people who study, work, marry, buy a home, and live past retirement age tend to be wealthier than people who do not.

The data to back this up comes from the Survey of Income and Program Participation that the Census Bureau conducted in 2020. The bureau’s report—“The Wealth of Households: 2019”—defines “wealth” simply as “the value of assets owned minus the debts owed.”

“Therefore,” the report notes, “wealth can be negative.”

“The median household wealth in 2019 was $118,200,” it says.

“The 10th percentile of household wealth was -$3,487, meaning one in ten households had wealth of -$3,487 or less,” it says.

“The 90th percentile of household wealth,” it says, “was $1,301,000, meaning one in ten households had wealth exceeding $1.3 million.”

What pushes someone toward the top—or the bottom?

When it comes to education, the higher the degree someone attains, the more likely they are to be among the wealthier class.

Households in which no one had even graduated from high school had a median wealth of $5,090. Among households in which the best-educated person had graduated from high school but never attended college, it was $40,560. When the best-educated person in the household had earned a bachelor’s degree, it was $196,800.

In households where the best-educated person had earned a graduate or professional degree, it was $408,700.

“Higher education was associated with more wealth,” the Census Bureau concluded. “Households in which the most educated member had a bachelor’s degree had a median wealth … about 39 times greater than households in which no member had a high school diploma.”

In fact, households in which the best-educated person had a graduate or professional degree had a median wealth ($408,700) that was 80 times greater than a household where no one had graduated from high school ($5,090) and 10 times greater than a household where the best educated person had only graduated from high school ($40,560).

Americans who have finished school and want to accumulate wealth face an obvious path: work.

In households where at least one person worked full time throughout 2019, the median wealth was $131,200. In households where at least one person worked part time, the median wealth was $85,180. In households where nobody was in the labor force, the median wealth was $18,290.

Among households collecting food stamps, the median wealth was $2,000.

Households headed by people who got married and stayed married were wealthier than households where the people did not.

Married-couple households where the householder was 65 or older had a median wealth of $504,800. If the married householder was 55 to 64, the median wealth was $430,000. Across the board, all married couple households had a median wealth of $269,000.

By contrast, households headed by an unmarried male had a median wealth of just $50,160, and those headed by an unmarried female had a median wealth of $36,600.

Was this merely because married-couple households had more people or workers? No.

“The median wealth of married householders was greater at all age levels than of unmarried householders,” said the Census Bureau report.

“For example, married householders under the age of 35 had a median wealth 17.6 times that of unmarried female householders and 3.3 times that of unmarried male householders. This suggests that the gaps in median wealth could not solely be attributed to the presence of an additional adult in the household; otherwise, married householders would have no more than twice the median wealth of unmarried householders.”

Wealth can be derived not only by someone owning their own home but by owning other people’s homes.

The two most valuable assets listed in the Census Bureau’s report are rental properties, which have a median value of $150,000, and equity in one’s own home, which has a median value of $130,000.

The next two most valuable assets are retirement accounts ($69,900) and other real estate ($60,000).

However, while 61.3% of households have equity in their own home and 58.8% have retirement accounts, only 7.2% own rental property and only 8.7% own other real estate.

“The data suggest that households generally accumulate more wealth as they age,” says the Census Bureau report. “For households in which the householder was under the age of 35, median wealth was $15,700. For households in which the householder was between 70 and 74 years old, median household wealth was $305,100, or about 2.5 times the value of overall median wealth ($118,200).”

The lesson: America remains a land of opportunity for people who study, work, save, invest, and stand by their families.


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