Rich-poor divide worsens in US

Washington (Reuter) - The inequality between rich and poor in the United States is far worse than even its sternest critics have charged, a study by the California think tank, Rand, said yesterday.

The study comes as the Clinton administration is battling with Congress over what to do about the widening gap between haves and have-nots. The President has accused Republican lawmakers of planning to use cuts in government spending on the poor and elderly to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy, exacerbating the gap between rich and poor. The analysis by a Rand senior economist, James Smith, noted that the disparity on accumulated wealth comes as the pension system is in steep decline and social security's promises seem impossible to keep, as the population ages.

"Loud alarm bells are ringing for the future," it said.

"Wealth inequality in America is simply enormous, several times greater than the growing income differentials that have triggered so much recent discussion and dismay."

The study said most middle-aged and elderly households have very modest holdings at best, while large segments of the over-50 population having no net worth at all. Disparities in conventional wealth, such as financial assets, home equity and business holdings, are very large among white households.

The top 5 per cent of white families with at least one spouse over 70 have wealth of $655,000 (pounds 410,000), seven times the $90,000 held by the median white household. White households in the bottom 10 per cent have less than $800.

Among white households in the pre-retirement years of 51 to 61, the top five per cent have tucked away $300,000, while the typical family has $17,300 and the bottom fifth has $800 or less. The situation for minorities is far worse. The typical black and Hispanic household has less than $500 in assets and four out of 10 have nothing.

The analysis used two national surveys by the National Institute on Ageing to reach its conclusions. One sample examined 7,600 households with at least one member between 51 and 61, while another looked at 6,000 families with at least one spouse 70 years or older.

Differences, it said, can be accounted for by less income complicated by higher divorce levels, which apparently affect savings behaviour, and the fact that poor families tend to have poorer health, also a key determinant of wealth.