America's richest people have seen a 10 per cent increase in their net worth over the past year, the latest list of individual fortunes in Forbes magazine reveals.
The latest Forbes 400 list is further evidence that the affluent are thriving under President Bush even as unemployment continues to rise and the income of average workers remains stagnant.
The list, published yesterday, showed that Bill Gates of Microsoft remains the world's richest man. He has spent ten years at the top and now has an estimated net worth of $46bn (£28bn), more than the GDP of most small or developing countries. The figure was up $3bn on last year's.
Number two was the superstar investor Warren Buffett, with $36bn. Number three was Mr Gates' erstwhile founding partner at Microsoft, Paul Allen, with $22bn.
Forbes ascribed the fattening portfolios of the super-rich to the recovery of internet and other tech stocks after the dot-com meltdown of 2000-2001.
Jeff Bezos of the online retailer Amazon.com had the biggest percentage gain. His fortune leapt more than $3bn to $5.1bn. This was the first year the Forbes 400 saw an increase in their wealth after two straight years of decline.
Collectively, the top 400 were worth $955bn - a figure reached by computing the value of publicly traded stocks and estimating the value of private stocks by assessing a fair market value for them.
The improving fortunes of those on the list also reflected the largesse being shown to the richest Americans by the Bush administration.
They are the main beneficiaries of tax cuts that will pump $100bn into the economy - most of it into the pockets of the top 1 per cent - this year alone. They have also benefited from measures such as the repeal of estate taxes and the lifting of various government regulations on industry and large businesses.
Such economic benefits are being enjoyed on a highly unequal basis, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank.
Unemployment stood at 6.2 per cent in July, the most recent figure available, or 10.2 per cent when broader indicators of under-employment and generally failing to make ends meet are factored in.
Real wages, which have grown about 2 per cent per year for the past several years, stopped growing entirely in 2002.
The disparity is perhaps best illustrated by the heirs of Sam Walton of the WalMart discount store empire. The five Walton children were valued at $20.5bn each in the Forbes list, making them the richest single family on Earth.
At the same time, WalMart is being lambasted - most notably in the California governor's recall election - for paying its workers so poorly that personnel managers hand out information to new recruits on how to obtain government food stamps.
US Rich List
Bill Gates: $46bn
Warren Buffett: $36bn
Paul Allen: $22bn
Walton heirs: $20.5bn each
Larry Ellison: $18bn
Michael Dell: $13bn
Steve Ballmer: $12.2bn
Cox heirs: $11bn each
John Kluge: $10.5bn
Mars heirs: $10.4bn each
Sumner Redstone: $9.7bn