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PolitiFact: Bernie Sanders right in his comparison of Americans' wealth to Waltons'

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 14: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) addresses the crowd at a campaign rally March 14, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The North Carolina Democratic  primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) 610021831

CHARLOTTE, NC - MARCH 14: Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) addresses the crowd at a campaign rally March 14, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The North Carolina Democratic primary will be held March 15. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images) 610021831

The statement

"The Walton family of Walmart … this one family owns more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of the American people."

Bernie Sanders, Feb. 23 in a campaign rally

The ruling

The claim originates from research by Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley. She last updated her research in 2014.

Allegretto tallied the total wealth held by the six relatives of Walmart founder Sam Walton: his sons Jim and Robert Walton; daughter Alice Walton; daughter-in-law Christy Walton; and his nieces, Ann Walton Kroenke and Nancy Walton Laurie.

Using figures from the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans in 2013, Allegretto totaled the wealth of those six Waltons at $145 billion.

Next, she turned to a survey of the net worth of Americans published every three years by the Federal Reserve. The most recent one was published in 2014 based on survey results from the previous year. The combined worth of the Walton clan in 2013, Allegretto said, "equaled the total wealth of the entire bottom 43 percent."

We should point out that this is not a measure of "income" — the amount of money families earn every year.

Instead, wealth is the bottom-line figure of a household's "net worth." As our colleagues at PolitiFact Wisconsin pointed out in a 2013 fact-check, net worth is the amount left over after accounting for things such as savings and retirement accounts minus what's owed on home mortgages, credit card bills and other debts.

That means it's entirely possible for someone earning a six-digit salary to be in the "bottom 40 percent," because all their debts still could leave them with zero or even negative net worth.

Tim Worstall, a fellow at the Adam Smith Institute free-market think tank in London, has been critical of comparing the Walton wealth to people of modest net worth. Worstall noted in a 2011 op-ed in Forbes that many high earners easily could fall into the category of zero or negative net worth, such as doctors still paying off loans from attending medical school.

"If you've no debts and have $10 in your pocket, you have more wealth than 25 percent of Americans. More than that 25 percent of Americans have collectively, that is," Worstall wrote.

Josh Bivens, research and policy director at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal Washington think tank, looked at the figure another way in a 2014 post. Noting that the Federal Reserve placed the median U.S. family wealth the previous year at $81,200, he wrote that it would take 1.7 million families with that amount of net worth to equal the wealth of the Waltons.

The Walton wealth has not been static since 2013. Forbes this year published figures showing the family's wealth has declined to $121.9 billion — a drop of $23.1 billion. Forbes explained it lowered the net worth held by Christy Walton after new information surfaced showing that her late husband, John — Sam Walton's son — left some of his fortune to charity.

We wondered whether that reduced $121.9 billion figure still would leave the Waltons' wealth equal to about 40 percent of U.S. families. Allegretto was unavailable to run a new set of computations for us.

So we turned to the Urban Institute, a Washington nonprofit specializing in economic social research. Its numbers show that Sanders' claim remains correct based on the latest national wealth figures from 2013.

We rate the claim True.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Bernie Sanders right in his comparison of Americans' wealth to Waltons' 03/17/16 [Last modified: Friday, March 18, 2016 1:31pm]
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