Which president had the thinnest wallet?

After lurking around SD for a dozen years, it’s finally time to ask a question.

Which U.S. President had the least wealth or lowest net worth? It seems these days that nearly every politician in Washington has a bank account of 6 figures or more, but has any president come to office from the middle or lower class (adjusted for inflation)? I’ve tried searching online for this answer with no success, and if no one else knows, obviously Cecil Adams does and has kept this information to himself.

Clinton or Obama would be my guess. Fuck Carter, just sayin’.

From the modern era, my money would be on Truman. His background was modest to say the least, his short business career left him in debt, he appears to have been too honest to have ever personally benefited from Pendergast schemes, and he even got screwed over by the high income tax rates of the early 50s on income from his memoirs, while Eisenhower’s memoirs qualified for more favorable treatment.

Yes. They basically established a presidential pension because they thought it unseemly that Truman was living off a very small army pension after he left office.

That’s it right there.

Pause and think about that for a moment; there used to be men that were too honest to capitalize on the fact that they had been President of the United States and chose to live modestly.

American Heritage article on the wealth of the Presidents.

Yeah, Truman was sort of my guess too, though I was afraid that was my bias from being raised in Missouri.
Thanks for that link runner pat.

It’s almost impossible for a modern President to reach the White House directly from the lower economic classes because Americans expect their presidents to be successful achievers. Joe the Plumber cannot be elected president. And that’s a good thing, even if you’re talking about a generic Joe and not the ridiculous character out of the 2008 election.

Most Americans also have the ridiculous idea that political salaries are generally high. The OP talks about a “6 figure bank account” but that’s not wealth in any way. Most middle-class households of the ages of presidential candidates have net worths in the 6 figures. It’s true that the salary for a representative is higher than the median, but you can’t compare the $174,000 they make with the tens of millions a CEO makes, even though the positions are equal in importance. A 6-figure salary gets you into the top 20%, which is nice but not rich.

Both the Obamas therefore had nice but hardly extravagant salaries before office. However, Obama made most of his money from sales of his books. That’s the way most politicians make money in the modern era. Not from graft, as the OP seems to imply. No president these days is likely to make it to office if the public sees them as having benefited illicitly, even if technically legal.

If you go backward through the 20th century, most presidents were career government employees and were not rich by almost anyone’s standards.

Clinton’s salary as governor of Arkansas was something like $35,000, small even by the OP’s standards. Hillary’s law income was needed. Carter ran a successful peanut farm, but he entered politics in his 30s. Nixon also entered politics in his 30s after WWII. He never made any real money until after the Vice Presidency. Eisenhower never made real money until after WWII, either. A career military man doesn’t. Truman shouldn’t count, because he never had a chance of being elected on his own.

Coolidge never did anything other than politics and never had much money, but he shouldn’t count either because he’s also an accidental president. (Ford didn’t even get elected, which is why I left him out). Harding was a successful newspaper publisher but nowhere near rich. Wilson was a professor and university president, both low-paying positions in those days. Taft was another career politician.

Three had made real money from their own efforts. Reagan was a Hollywood star and pitchman for various groups. Johnson made millions from owning essentially a monopoly over the television franchise in Austin. Hoover was a self-made millionaire, having graduated from the first class at Stanford University and building up an engineering firm of world renown.

The rest, the two Bushes, the two Roosevelts, and Kennedy, came from rich families. Kennedy never had a real job, being a career politician. In fact, all of them were essentially career politicians, except Bush 2. He made money from business, although his businesses didn’t.

You can’t argue that only rich politicians get elected president. You can’t argue that most presidents aren’t self-made. You can’t argue that most presidents come from anything other than lower-class or middle-class families. You can’t argue that most presidents get their money from anything but totally legitimate careers.

Yes, some rich people do become president. It would be fantastic is that weren’t true. You can argue that Joseph Kennedy’s money is tainted because of his rum-running during Prohibition, although Daniel Okrent’s book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition takes pains to dispel that myth. Johnson’s television monopoly is certainly suspicious. And that’s it. Nobody else’s money is a problem, even in hindsight.

Presidents don’t get to be president by not being ruthless. But they don’t get there by buying their way in. Even the rich ones had to earn their way step by successful step.

Truman would be my guess, too, although as Exapno noted, there have been several who were of limited means even by the standards of their day. As to Carter, I remember reading that the guy he left in charge of his peanut farm and other business matters while he was in the White House ran things very poorly, and Carter had a nasty surprise when he got back to Plains in '81 and saw how much red ink had been spilled in his absence.

Clinton had huge legal bills when he left Washington, and had to do a lot of public speaking to raise $$$ in his early years as an ex-President.

To add to what Exapno Mapcase, six “Six Crises” Nixon says after the 1960 election the only thing he and Pat had was equity in their Washington house and enough cash to meet expenses (whatever those are). They had no stocks and bonds, a life insurance with minimum cash value. No office and no staff for being a former Vice President and the only pension he had would be from being a Senator, which wouldn’t start until he was 62 and to which he contributed. So he missed by a few graveyards in Chicago and Texas of becoming a poor president (in more ways than one). After losing race and the California governor race in 1962, he became wealthy as a New York lawyer.

Of course nowadays lots of presidents/candidates can have wives with well paying career. Liddy Dole ran the Red Cross and would have continued if her husband won in 1996. Michelle Obama got a pay raise once her moronic husband became a Senator and started voting “present”.

Grant never managed his money well and gave up his Army pension when he became president. After becoming bankrupt, he sold his memoirs to provide for his family and died shortly after completing.

Is the OP asking about the origins of a president, or their financial resources at the time they become President? Because there have been lots of presidents from humble origins, but often by the time they get to the office, they’re in good financial shape. People who become President tend to be capable and can make their way in life, above their origins.

Lincoln and Andrew Johnson are good examples. Both had humble origins, but made their way up the ladder by their abilities. Johnson, for instance, was apprenticed as a tailor, and didn’t learn to read and write until his wife taught him.

Much more recently, Reagan, Nixon, Ford, Clinton and Obama all came from low-income families. (Although of course Obama does have that Kenyan-MauMau-Islmacist secret trust fund to fall back on. :stuck_out_tongue: )

ETA: just checked Wiki - it says Johnson taught himself to read and write. I’ve seen other sources that suggest it was his wife. Either way, it’s a classic example of the “self-made man”.

Robert A. Caro’s biography of him makes it pretty clear that he became rich as a result of his political career. He got his first radio station at a steal from one of his political backers, slapped his wife’s name on the deed and claimed that she had bought it with some inheritance money. Then he used his position in Congress to pull strings with the FCC and get the necessary licenses to turn it into a commercial powerhouse (it had previously been a low-powered station that only broadcast for half the day). He also strongarmed sponsors by threatening to sink or hold up legislation and government contracts favorable to their businesses if they didn’t buy ads on his stations.

Here’s a list from Forbes of the ten richest U.S. presidents:

There are at least three different possible interpretations of the question in the OP:

How much money did the President’s family have at his birth?
How much money did the President have at his election?
How much money did the President have at his death?

And all three figures would have to be adjusted for inflation to be useful. I don’t know which of those three questions the Forbes article is answering, but I suspect it’s the wealth at election. There’s at least one more problem in answering the question, which is that in some cases the family of the President was wealthy, but the way the finances were worked out the President himself was never that wealthy himself, so he wouldn’t be as high in the list. I don’t think that anyone has ever completely figured all of this out, so it’s probably not possibly to come up with a definitive answer to the question in the OP.

Moderator Note

Jim’s Son, political jabs are not permitted in GQ. No warning issued, but don’t do this again.

Colibri
General Questions Moderator

http://247wallst.com/2010/05/25/americas-poorest-presidents-bankruptcy-insolvency-and-extreme-financial-hardship/ This article puts Truman as poorest followed by
McKinley
Grant
Lincoln
Harrison
Monroe
Madison
Jefferson

In 1952 my HS history teacher claimed that Truman didn’t have enough money to run the White House properly. I don’t know if he got an allowance for the purpose. But he certainly didn’t profit from politics.

The list given in the link in Gonzomax’s post doesn’t seem to be using a consistent point in the president’s life for calculation of how rich or poor they were. Sometimes it uses the wealth at death, but other times it uses the wealth at the time they were elected. It makes the interesting point that a lot of the presidents were risk-takers who sometimes lost big on their investments.

If you read “Freakonomics”, one of the best predictors of success is the education level of the parents. By that standard, Obama succeeded admirably, as he had parents who both went on to post-graduate degrees. Plus, he was one of the smarter and more successful students in his class. He never was a cheerleader, that I know of.

Regardless, you can see that betwen him and his wife they had decent income. This allowed him to do something other than work just for the amount of money he would receive - so in a way, he is an exception to this question because he chose not to run the rat race to get the highest score in dollars.

I alway admired Richard Nixon, too, even though that was not a favoured position when I was going to college - because unlike many of his competitors, he did come from lower middle class and work his way up; his daddy never bought him any office. Everyone talks about whether Chicago or Texas got JFK the presidency - what about all that family and being senator? Do we seriously think that they earned a senate position on their own merit? After Nixon did his “Checkers” speech, he always complained that people ignored the rest of his speech, which basically explained in detail how yes his friends had put together a special fund for political action, but he himself never took a cent for his own pocket.

I think the other lesson of Obama (or Clinton, or even Nixon after 62) is that in a world where the 100 members of the senate are pretty much international stars, you can make a fortune selling books or giving lectures; the stars of US government are never going to stay “Joe the Plumber”. Sarah Palin, whatever you may think of her qualifiactions or intellect, nevertheless has parlayed a truncated governatorial sentence and a failed vice-presidential bid into something that has made her far richer than before, “set for life”, even if she never did anything more politically.

Sadly, such connections and “friends” as politics attracts are needed to fund-raise if you aspire to attain or retain any high office. Estimates of simple senate races are in the tens to hundreds of millions, which is the starting price for president.

Today if your name is know in politics, you can get honestly rich (outside of government). So it’s no surprise that even people who started off at the bottom, if they have any smarts, are comfortable by the time they are serious presidential candiadates, and those with rich family ties have a serious head start. The great thing about America, was that even in the 1800’s, people who had the ability could work their way into the ruling class.

Who was it, Jefferson, who recounts that after having been sworn in as President of the United States, he walked back to the rooming house he was staying at in Washington? The days of small government are long long gone.

This anecdote has nothing to do with small government and everything to do with the fact that Washington was a village in a swamp in 1801.

Yes, Jefferson did stay at a rooming house as vice president. That’s because there were hardly any places for anyone to stay. He could have lived in a family’s house but that was about his only other alternative. Hardly anyone was rich enough to build themselves a second home in Washington.

Jefferson in fact lived at what was thought to be the finest rooming house in the area, a short walk from the White House they were still building. It was large for the day and seated about 30 for dinner, which would have been where most of what passed for entertainment took place.

I can’t confirm whether Jefferson walked back to the house after giving his inaugural speech, but if so he didn’t stay there long. Adams already lived in the unfinished White House and Jefferson moved right in. And almost certainly spent plenty of money on wine and food to duplicate what he had had in the rooming house.