Moneybox

Bernie Sanders Is Not That Rich for Someone His Age

MONTPELIER, VT - MAY 25:  Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally in the capital of his home state of Vermont on May 25, 2019 in Montpelier, Vermont.  This was the first Vermont rally of Sanders' 2020 campaign. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, basic millionaire.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has lived most his adult life in the middle class. But thanks to the book he published in 2017 after his first presidential run, he is now a millionaire. And because the Vermont senator has spent his career railing against the power of the rich, some writers have wondered if his newfound wealth somehow undercuts his political message. On Friday, Politico Magazine published a longish magazine piece, “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions,” that frames a deep dive into his history with money around that question:

There is no set strategy for how to run for president as a democratic socialist with an expensive lakefront summer house. Americans generally don’t begrudge millionaires their millions—and, as Donald Trump has confirmed, the aura of wealth can serve as a useful means of self-promotion—but what to make of Sanders’ apparently conflicting narratives?

“He became the very thing he criticized others for becoming and at the same time didn’t fix any of the problems he’s been railing about that got him to this point,” Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh told me.

There are many things that make this whole pseudo-controversy a bit silly. But one of them is that Sanders really isn’t that wealthy for somebody his age. He’s well-off, to be sure. But his level of affluence is pretty normal for a college-educated American in his 70s. The man earned a windfall, but he doesn’t suddenly have plutocrat money.

According to Politico, Sanders has a net worth “approaching at least $2 million, taking into account his publicly outlined assets and liabilities along with the real estate he owns outright.” To find out where that would put him in the U.S. wealth distribution, I asked People’s Policy Project founder Matt Bruenig to pull data from the Federal Reserve’s 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances. Assuming, for argument’s sake, that Sanders has exactly $2 million to his name, that would place him in the 93.9th percentile for net worth among all American households (a family’s net worth equals their assets minus their debts). To even qualify for the top 1 percent, he’d need more than $10 million.

The U.S. wealth curve
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

An important thing to remember about wealth, though, is that older people tend to have more of it. Even if they have high incomes, younger workers are often stuck paying down student loans and mortgages, which lowers their net worth. Many older adults, on the other hand, have spent years piling up retirement assets and building home equity. Among Americans 65 and older, having $2 million would place Sanders in the 89.7th percentile for net worth. He’d need more than $12 million to qualify for the top 1 percent.

Wealth curve for senior citizens
Jordan Weissmann/Slate

And what about college graduates? Among that slice of the country, Sanders’ wealth isn’t that remarkable at all. Among those 65 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree, $2 million is enough to hit the 75th percentile of net worth, according to the People’s Policy Project analysis. When you’re in your golden years, having a low-seven figure nest egg pretty much makes you part of the upper-middle-class.

Of course, the premise of the piece is a ridiculous one. Even if Sanders was suddenly a member of the wealthiest 1 percent, I don’t think it would really make him a hypocrite. The man wants to make America look a bit more like a Scandinavian social democracy, and last I checked, Swedes and Norwegians don’t have any problem with authors earning a payday. They just tax more of it. But the bottom line is that Sanders’ rhetoric about millionaires and billionaires has always been a shorthand for the power of extreme wealth, the kind that can buy you political influence. And he doesn’t have anywhere close to that kind of money.