from the Wall Street Journal, The Uncounted Trillions in the Inequality Debate by Martin Feldstein:
These data seem to show a country whose wealth is highly concentrated. But the true picture is hardly as stark as critics of inequality claim, because it leaves out the large amount of wealth held in the form of future retirement benefits from Social Security and Medicare. Moreover, the public’s traditional financial wealth is depressed because the current entitlement programs lower people’s real incomes and deny them the higher returns available through investment-based retirement savings like IRAs or 401(k)s.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next decade total Social Security retiree benefits will be $10.2 trillion, while the benefits for Medicare will be $9.0 trillion and those for Medicaid will be $4.6 trillion (about half of Medicaid benefits are for retirees in nursing homes). In short, the benefits for these two government health programs exceed the amount Social Security will pay out to retirees in cash.
But unlike Social Security, receiving government health benefits does not depend on current workers continuing to pay taxes. This suggests that the net “Medicare and Medicaid wealth” implied by current law is probably about as large as these households’ “gross Social Security wealth” of $50 trillion.
So what is the grand total? Add the $50 trillion for Medicare and Medicaid wealth to the $25 trillion for net Social Security wealth and the $20 trillion in conventionally measured net worth, and the lower 90% of households have more than $95 trillion that should be reckoned as wealth. This is substantially more than the $60 trillion in conventional net worth of the top 10%. And this $95 trillion doesn’t count the value of unemployment benefits, veterans benefits, and other government programs that substitute for conventional financial wealth.
Further info on the difficulty of measuring inequality in a meaningful way. Inequality is a trigger point for political and academics, but not for most citizens who are concerned much more with their own level of poverty, mobility and most of all opportunity to better their position in life. Feldstein notes that actions that could benefit the poor are usually opposed by those who pretend to help them.