THE rich are getting richer and the poor poorer.
New numbers -- ''hot off the press,'' as Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University, puts it -- show that the top 1 percent of families own 42 percent of total wealth in 1992, up from 39 percent in 1989. This indicates an acceleration in the concentration of wealth since 1989. A report on this topic released earlier this week uses 1989 data. Between 1983 and 1989, that group of about 680,000 families increased its share of wealth from 34 percent to 39 percent.
''The gap is continuing to widen,'' says Wolff -- a surprise to him.
What was thought to be ''a 1980s story,'' now proves to be ''a 1990s story'' as well, says Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. ''We are ending up with such wide gulfs between the haves and the have-nots that you have a large group of workers and families feeling less and less vested in America. Those workers may be playing by the rules, working hard to try and sustain living standards for themselves and their families. Yet they are losing ground.''
Though income in the US is less skewed toward the well-to-do than wealth, its distribution also has become more unequal in recent years. The top 5 percent of families got 19.1 percent of total income in 1993, up from 17.9 percent in 1989, Mr. Bernstein notes.
The only group that gained any extra share of the 1.5 percent growth in the total real income pie (adjusted for inflation) was the top 5 percent of earners.
''The bakers aren't sharing in the pie,'' he says.
Wealth is measured as the current value of all assets a household owns -- financial wealth such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds, life-insurance savings, mutual-fund shares; houses and unincorporated businesses; consumer durables like cars and major appliances; and the value of pension rights -- minus liabilities, such as consumer debt and mortgage balances.
Wolff's latest wealth figures are based on preliminary analysis of the Federal Reserve's 1992 survey of consumer finances. He hasn't looked yet at trends for the poor for the 1989-92 period, but says it is ''probably true'' that their wealth was hit. As a group, the middle class didn't save ''a nickel'' in that period, he adds. Median wealth -- the amount of wealth at which the number of families possessing more wealth equals the number of families possessing less wealth -- was stagnant.
Many in the middle class are blaming the poor and immigrants for their financial frustration, believing they are using up their tax dollars in welfare and other social expenditures, Wolff notes.
''This suggests a growing polarization,'' he says. ''It doesn't bode well for the future stability of our country. I'm not suggesting a revolution. But there already has been growth of a quasi-fascist element in this country.''
One reason for the lack of growth in middle-class wealth in the 1989-92 period was the widespread decline in housing prices, says Gordon Richards, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers. Speaking for himself and not the NAM, he says many families may have made the ''wrong choice'' in going heavily into debt to buy a home when demographics indicate that prices are likely to fall.
Weaker home prices, Wolff agrees, were a factor.
Herbert Stein, a top economic adviser to President Nixon, says concentration of wealth in a relatively small group ''has always been true.'' Moreover, he adds, the power of rich families, such as the Rockefellers and Carnegies, has declined. ''I am more concerned about the people at the bottom,'' he says.
But Wolff notes that many of the old families are still on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 richest individuals, though joined by relative newcomers such as successful businessmen William Gates, Warren Buffet, and Ross Perot.
Wolff charges that the House Republicans' Contract With America will worsen the unequal distribution of income in the US by reducing the government benefits going to the poor and weakening certain kinds of regulations.
Referring to the famed capitalist economist Adam Smith, who argued that the ''invisible hand'' of competition brought the most benefits overall to society, Wolff says, ''The invisible hand is not a friendly hand, a kind hand.'' Governments of other industrial nations, he continues, have done more to soften ''the slapping of the hand'' and have proportionately less poverty and top-heavy wealth. As an example, he cites Canada with a higher median income (though not a higher average income) than the US, and with poverty declining for a decade or more.
Asked why the high concentration of wealth and income has not created greater social unrest, Bernstein speculates that Americans ''make a serious probability error.'' They think that a ''lottery win'' or better fate could make them wealthy. ''For the most part, you stay where you start,'' he says.
Wolff, in a new study for the Twentieth Century Fund, New York, urges that the US introduce a tax on wealth similar to those imposed by 11 other industrial nations. At present, Washington does tax wealth through the capital gains tax, and, at death, through estate taxes. Local and state governments tax property.
The new tax would scale up from 0.05 percent of wealth for those with net assets just above $100,000 to 0.3 percent of wealth for the wealthiest. (That 0.3 percent is about what the rich pay in money management fees, Wolff says.) It would bring in $40 billion annually to reduce the deficit, or spend on highways or the poor.
Mr. Richards counters that the US taxes capital gains -- and thus wealth -- at a higher rate than most industrial countries.
One positive element in Wolff's findings is that blacks and hispanics have improved their wealth position relative to whites. Non-whites, on average, had 29 percent of the average wealth of whites in 1989, and 37 percent in 1992. Non-white median wealth rose from 8 percent to 16 percent.
Wolff interprets these numbers as indicating that middle class non-whites have done ''quite well'' in accumulating wealth, but a large number of non-whites have been left behind in poverty.