Inflation, Interest, and the Secular Rise in Wealth Inequality in the United States: Is the Fed Responsible?

Edward N. Wolff

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Two hallmarks of U.S. monetary policy since the 1981–1982 recession are declining interest rates and moderation in inflation, at least until recently. Coincident with these trends was a surge in U.S. wealth inequality, with the Gini coefficient up by 0.070 between 1983 and 2019. This article analyzes the connection between these two developments on the basis of the Survey of Consumer Finances. Contrary to expectations, the article finds that these two monetary effects reduced wealth inequality rather than increasing it. The effect is quite sizeable, with the Gini coefficient declining by 0.045 over these years. Asset price changes and debt devaluation also accounted for 72.6 percent of the advance of mean wealth and would have led to a 204.9 percent gain in median wealth compared to its actual rise of 23.4 percent. Moreover, they helped lower the racial wealth gap rather than enlarging it. These results are at odds with previous literature in which estimates range from a weak negative effect on inequality to neutral, small positive, and strong positive. In terms of methodology, this article differs from previous work by focusing on only the direct effects of interest rate changes and inflation on the household balance sheet.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)244-285
    Number of pages42
    JournalJournal of Economic Issues
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - 2024


    • household wealth
    • inequality
    • portfolio composition
    • racial inequality

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • General Business, Management and Accounting
    • Economics and Econometrics


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