It's seemingly as certain as death and taxes: The richest people in America keep getting richer. The average net worth of those on The Forbes 400 has once again marched higher, hitting $7.2 billion this year. That's up from $6.7 billion last year and the ninth year in a row that the average list member's fortune has increased.
The total combined net worth for those on The Forbes 400 climbed to a record $2.9 trillion, up 7% from 2017. That is more than the total GDP of the United Kingdom. Jeff Bezos, with a fortune of $160 billion, singlehandedly controls about 5% of this sum.
Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is by far the richest person on Earth, unseating Bill Gates as No. 1 on our list of the richest Americans after a remarkable 24-year run. Bezos is also the first person to appear in the ranks with a net worth over $100 billion — he surpassed the milestone, and then some, with a fortune estimated at $160 billion.
Bezos saw his net worth shoot up by a record $78.5 billion in the past year, thanks to a 104% surge in the price of Amazon stock. The e-commerce Goliath recorded more than $100 billion in net sales in the first six months of 2018, a 41% jump from the prior year. Bezos gained more in one year than the wealth that 397 members of The Forbes 400 have been able to build in their entire lifetimes, with just Bill Gates (net worth: $97 billion) and Warren Buffett (net worth: $88.3 billion) worth more.
Three dozen billionaires who appear on The Forbes 400 have donated $1 billion or more over their lifetimes. This includes three-time mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg, who has given away $6 billion, with his foundation spending $200 million to support U.S. mayors and cities, more than $100 million to reduce coal usage around the world and millions more on global health and education; casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has donated over $1.1 billion, largely to Jewish organizations like Birthright, which sponsors paid trips to Israel for young Jewish adults; and Steve Ballmer, who has ramped up his philanthropy since retiring as Microsoft CEO in 2014, writing checks to his and his wife's alma maters (Harvard and University of Oregon, respectively) and putting $1.9 billion into a donor-advised fund at Goldman Sachs.
The three most generous people in America have donated a stunning $30 billion or more, each, over their lifetimes. Microsoft founder Bill Gates has put $35.8 billion into his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which focuses on solving the world's biggest problems. Revered investor Warren Buffett has donated almost as much, with his lifetime giving adding up to $35.1 billion, much of which has gone to the foundation of his friends Bill and Melinda Gates. Coming in third place is veteran hedge fund manager George Soros, who has given away $32 billion, with his Open Society Foundations supporting a range of liberal organizations including Planned Parenthood, Amnesty International and the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.
When Forbes published its inaugural list of the 400 richest Americans (a nod to Caroline Astor's fabled ballroom, which could fit only 400 people) in 1982, it was Daniel Keith Ludwig who was identified as the wealthiest person in the nation. Ludwig had made a fortune building tankers for the U.S. during World War II and is considered the father of the supertanker.
Others who made appearances at the top over the years: Gordon Getty (son of a wealthy oilman), Sam Walton (founder of Walmart), John Kluge (television mogul) and Warren Buffett (investor extraordinaire). Then came the decades-long reign of Bill Gates, who ranked No. 1 for 24 straight years.
There are a record number of U.S. billionaires who weren't wealthy enough to break into the ranks of the richest Americans this year. For the first time, a full third of the country's billionaires (now numbering 604) have fortunes south of the $2.1 billion required to make the list.
In the 37 years since Forbes began publishing a list of the 400 richest Americans, there have been 1,597 people to appear among its ranks. While many of the members remain the same year over year, there is still plenty of coming and going. This year, 15 billionaires appeared on the list for the very first time, including cryptocurrency billionaire Chris Larsen and In-N-Out heir Lynsi Snyder, while 12 came back after missing out for at least one year.
Another 17 people were booted from the ranks, including bond baron Bill Gross (with a divorce to blame) and Subway cofounder Peter Buck (a sandwich slump sunk his fortune). Plus, ten former members of The Forbes 400 died in the past year, including Amway cofounder Richard DeVos and New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson.
Women make up a small fraction of the list, with just 57 women rich enough to break into the ranks of the richest Americans. Most of them inherited family businesses, with just 11 women building their fortunes from the ground up and another five actively growing businesses they inherited. Four of the five richest women in America inherited stakes in family businesses like Walmart (Alice Walton), Mars (Jacqueline Mars), Cox (Blair Parry-Okeden) and Apple (Laurene Powell Jobs). Abigail Johnson also inherited part of the family business, but is the only one in the bunch to play an active role in growing it, currently serving as CEO and chairman of mutual fund giant Fidelity Investments.
The nation's five richest self-made entrepreneurs are also the five richest people in the country, including Jeff Bezos, who started Amazon as an online bookseller out of his garage, and Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to build his social media site Facebook. The five wealthiest people to appear on our list thanks — in part or in whole — to inheriting a family business include Charles and David Koch, who turned their father's small Kansas refinery business into a sprawling conglomerate with $100 billion in revenue. The heirs to the Walmart fortune also appear at the top of our list, with just S. Robson Walton credited for taking an active role in the company.