The gap between those with the most and those with the least has blown out over the past two decades, with the average wealth of the highest 20% growing at four times the rate of the lowest, new research by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and UNSW Sydney shows.

The latest report from the Poverty and Inequality Partnership, Inequality in Australia 2023: Overview, shows that wealth inequality has increased strongly over the past two decades. From 2003 to 2022, the average wealth of the highest 20% rose by 82% and that of the highest 5% rose by 86%, leaving behind the middle 20% (with a 61% increase) and the lowest 20% (with a 20% increase).

The overall increase in wealth inequality over the period was mainly driven by superannuation, which grew by 155% in value due to compulsory savings property investment.

Contrary to the public image of ‘mum and dad’ property investors, investment housing is very unequally shared: the wealthiest 20% hold 82% of all investment property by value.

The report also shows that the government’s timely pandemic response reduced income inequality, but only temporarily.

Read the full report:

Key findings

Income inequality

  • In 2019-20, the highest 20% of households by income had average incomes of $4,306 per week after tax, five times the income of the lowest 20% ($794), and the highest 5% ($6,495) had eight times the income of the lowest 20%.
  • Wages comprise 77% of incomes overall, but the lowest 20% relied relatively more on social security (50% of their income) while the highest 5% relied relatively more on investments (comprising 23% of their income).

Long-term trends in income inequality (1999 to 2019) 

  • Over the last two decades, income inequality increased during periods of income growth (1999-2007) and stabilized in periods of income stagnation (2007-2019).
  • The average incomes of the highest 5% grew faster (by 59% overall) than those of the middle 20% (41%) and lowest 20% (46%) during this period.

Impact of COVID-19 (2019 to 2022)

  • During the first year of recovery from the COVID recession (2020-21), temporary government income supports lifted average household incomes and reduced income inequality.
  • COVID income supports helped the lowest 20% more significantly than other groups.
  • However, the removal of COVID income supports during 2021-22 led to a decline in real incomes and an increase in income inequality, bringing it close to pre-COVID levels.

Wealth inequality

  • Average household wealth in Australia is the fourth-highest in the world, driven mainly by home ownership.
  • Wealth distribution is highly unequal, with the wealthiest 20% holding average wealth of $3,240,000 – six times the wealth of the middle 20% ($588,000) and 90 times that of the lowest 20% ($36,000).
  • Contrary to the image of the ‘mum and dad investor’, the highest 20% by wealth holds 82% of the value of all investment property and 78% of all shares and financial investments .

Long-term trends in wealth inequality (2003 to 2022)

  • Wealth inequality increased substantially over the past two decades. The wealth of the highest 20% increased by 82% compared to 61% for the middle 20% and just 20% for the lowest 20%.
  • Growth in superannuation assets contributed significantly to the overall increase in of wealth inequality.


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