Here's how America's super-rich made their money

An activist protests economic inequality in Berlin.
(Image credit: Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

On Monday, Donald Trump described how his journey to wealth "has not been easy," as he started out with only hard work and "a small loan of a million dollars" from his pops. But while The Donald may be less of a self-made man than he might like voters to think, data from the Forbes 400 — a tally of America's wealthiest people — reveals that most of Trump's fellow rich people did pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Using a 10-point scale, Forbes ranked the rich according to whether they inherited their wealth and whether they overcame obstacles to earn it on their own. For example, someone like Oprah Winfrey, who grew up in an extremely poor and abusive context, gets a score of 10 for being thoroughly self-made. (Trump, for the record, scored a five, which lands him in the inheritance category.)

On a broader scale, the ranking found that 69 percent of the super-rich scored six or higher, meaning they did not inherit their wealth. And the list is trending toward meritocracy: In 1984, fewer than 50 percent of the Forbes 400 were self-made. The rich in America are also significantly more likely to have worked for their cash than rich people worldwide, where 52 percent of the wealthy are old money.

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Bonnie Kristian

Bonnie Kristian was a deputy editor and acting editor-in-chief of She is a columnist at Christianity Today and author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (forthcoming 2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018). Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.