On Thursday (7/18/2012), Dylan Matthews posted an article on Ezra Klein’s blog at the Washington Post. It contained a bar graph of median household wealth (net worth) for 19 nations in declining order. These numbers are my (approximate) reading of that graph:

  1. Australia $220,000
  2. Italy $160,000
  3. Japan $125,000
  4. United Kingdom $120,000
  5. Switzerland $100,000
  6. Ireland $100,000
  7. France $90,000
  8. Canada $89,000
  9. Norway $83,000
  10. Finland $80,000
  11. Spain $75,000
  12. New Zealand $72,500
  13. Netherlands $70,000
  14. Israel $65,000
  15. China, Taiwan $60,000
  16. Germany $60,000
  17. United States of America $53,000
  18. Sweden $40,000
  19. Denmark $25,000

The range here is huge, almost a factor of ten between Denmark and Australia. The U.S., which has a very large per-capita GDP, ranks 17th out of 19. Israel, to whom we give foreign aid has higher median per-household wealth. What’s going on here??

The data come from this Credit Suisse report (pdf), and I’m presuming that Dylan’s bar graph correctly reflects that data. The big factor here is that these numbers are “medians” (i.e., midpoints) rather than “means” (i.e., averages). A country can have high average wealth, even if 99% of the country have nothing, provided that the 1% are very, very wealthy.

This is a chart that I’m going to show when Mitt Romney fans talk about “what makes American exceptional.” It vividly documents how badly America’s 99% are being screwed by its 1%. We’re a wealthy nation only when you count the trillions controlled by the 1% but not so wealthy when you look at the net worth of the median household.

UPDATE: Per HuffPo, U.S. poverty is set to reach the highest level in 47 years this summer:

The Associated Press surveyed more than a dozen economists, think tanks and academics, both nonpartisan and those with known liberal or conservative leanings, and found a broad consensus: The official poverty rate will rise from 15.1 percent in 2010, climbing as high as 15.7 percent. Several predicted a more modest gain, but even a 0.1 percentage point increase would put poverty at the highest since 1965.

Poverty is spreading at record levels across many groups, from underemployed workers and suburban families to the poorest poor. More discouraged workers are giving up on the job market, leaving them vulnerable as unemployment aid begins to run out. Suburbs are seeing increases in poverty, including in such political battlegrounds as Colorado, Florida and Nevada, where voters are coping with a new norm of living hand to mouth.