Comparing Forbes' lists of America's richest people from 1982 and 2019 shows how differently wealth is tracked today
- For 37 years, Forbes has released an annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans.
- Business Insider obtained a partial copy of the first Forbes 400 list published in 1982. Comparing it with the 2019 version shows key differences in how wealth was tracked and described then versus today.
- On the 1982 list, the richest Americans' fortunes are described using vague wording like "probably exceeds $1 billion" and "above $2 billion."
- Today, the numbers are much more precise - e.g. Jeff Bezos is worth $114 billion and Bill Gates is worth $106 billion.
- The 1982 ranking was not numbered, but organized into categories like "$500 million and up," while today the individuals are clearly ranked No. 1 (Bezos), No. 2 (Gates), etc.
- Unlike on the 1982 list, billionaires in 2019 were also ranked by their philanthropy score, based on how much they give to charity.
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The most obvious difference is the sheer quantity of wealth depicted on the Forbes 400 lists. The top five richest Americans today - Bezos, Gates, Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Larry Ellison - are worth a collective $435.4 billion - more than 2% of America's GDP.The top five richest Americans in 1982 had a combined fortune of roughly $11 billion. But the differences don't end there.
The Forbes 400 in 2019 gives a precise ranking of American billionaires and includes a 'philanthropy score'
In the 2019 list, the billionaires are organized by net worth in a numbered ranking. Other data points include each billionaire's age, home state, source of wealth, and whether or not the individual is an impact investor.Each person also gets a philanthropy score on a scale of one to five, measuring how much they give to charity. The richest person on the list is Jeff Bezos, with an estimated net worth of $114 billion and a philanthropy score of two.
If you click on a person's name on the online version of the list, a box drops down with more details about the source of the person's wealth. Bezos, for example, has two bullet points:
- "Jeff Bezos founded e-commerce colossus Amazon in 1994 out of his garage in Seattle. He remains CEO and owns a nearly 12% stake.
- He divorced his wife MacKenzie in July 2019 after 25 years of marriage and transferred one quarter of his Amazon stake to her."
The original Forbes 400 in 1982 was not explicitly ranked, used vague wording, and represented much less wealth
The original Forbes 400 published in 1982 looks quite different from today's.
For one, the richest person on the Forbes 400 in 1982 wouldn't even make the list today. The richest American in 1982 was Daniel Keith Ludwig with an estimated $2 billion net worth. In 2019, the minimum net worth to make the list was $2.1 billion.Similar to today's bullet points, each individual got a short blurb noting their age, location, source of wealth, and in some cases, tidbits such as "in continual pain 50 years from back injury" and "principal hobby: sailing."
But in stark contrast to today's list, the richest Americans' fortunes in 1982 were described using vague wording like "probably exceeds $1 billion" and "above $2 billion." In 2019, those numbers are much more precise - e.g. Bezos is worth $114 billion and Gates is worth $106 billion - although they are still estimates.And unlike the 2019 list with its clear, numbered ranking, the 1982 richest Americans weren't numerically ranked.
"They were still ordered by net worth, there just wasn't a numbered ranking explicit on the pages," Christina Vega, Forbes' director of communications, told Business Insider. "They were also further divided into various sections, like '$1 billion and up,' '$500 million and up.'"Vega told Business Insider that while the Forbes 400 methodology has evolved and improved over the years, "net worth numbers are all still estimates." While the Forbes 400 lists have evolved since 1982, two names have consistently appeared on the rich list since the very beginning: Philip Anschutz and William Herbert Hunt.
In 1982, Anschutz was ranked the seventh-richest American with an estimated net worth of "over $1 billion," made in industries including oil, railroads, telecom, real estate, and entertainment. Hunt was ranked the 10th-richest with a net worth "in excess of $1 billion," derived from the oil industry.
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