The stock market is not democratic. Changes in the stock market, far from being an honest representation of the state of the nation’s economy, are nothing more than a barometer for the wealthy, educated elite whose fortunes are tied to Wall Street’s performance, while the great majority of the population become spectators in increasing numbers with every advance or decline. Psychology, technology, education and social status all have become barriers preventing the equitable distribution of the gifts of regulated equities, and worse, perpetuate the imbalance by their very nature.

In the stock market, the rich get richer while the rest…just think they do.

There is an unspoken myth that participation in the stock market is wide and deep in America, and that its fortunes are egalitarian – truly a democracy open to all, and with an even shot at bonanza. In a sense, Wall Street has come to define America, and the equality of opportunity it represents. No matter how humble of station, the American dream is available through prudent investment in the stock market over the long term.

The mainstream media in the United States supports this supposition, the rise of business and investment shows, finance segments in news broadcasts, and daily headlines covering every joyous or threatening tilt in the great pinball machine. Finance news has become a growth industry, predicated as it is on the increasing desire of wider groups of viewers for immediate and insightful news and analysis. On the web, sex is still king, with finance porn coming up behind. A noun, a verb, and a stock symbol will get your blog readers almost as fast as a scantily clad avatar.

Only a third of Americans participate in the stock market through the ownership of stocks in one way or another. While that’s a lot of people, it certainly is not the strong majority that a democracy assumes. Still, changes in stock market performance do affect thirty-five percent of the population directly. However the math suggests that the best such a wide group can do in a pseudo zero sum game is to track the changes, their returns never being anything better than average.

Real increases in wealth occur in smaller, segmented sections of the stock buying population as a whole. Owning stocks alone is no guarantee of success.

For most of the stock owning public, stock ownership arrives through the back door, in market products that pool resources like mutual funds, or in market incentives like retirement tax breaks that accompany the buying of stocks in the way 401(k) plans do. People invest for the tax break, and consider the risk small or non-existent that their equity investments in stocks will melt away. They are not stock market investors as much as they are tax break investors.

In terms of risk ownership – where higher risks mean greater potential rewards – the vast amount of stock holding Americans have insulated themselves from the great rewards of stock ownership, by falsely believing their low risk, widely spread holdings will return more than low, widely spread rewards. For people who own mutual funds, automated 401(k) plans, or received stock in the company they work for, the nature and motivation of their investment condemns them to the law of averages, existing always on the fat part of the curve. They will never beat the market, as they are the market.

And while most consider the rapid, inexorable advance of the value of the Dow an important way to have their investments participate in the great game of easy wealth creation, that too is an illusion. Despite its impressive scorecard, the stock market has only averaged a real rate of return of about 4% over the long term, once adjusted for inflation. Hardly the get rich quick – or slow – scheme many believe.

Direct stock market participation is the only way to get out from under the curve, and have any realistic shot at beating inflation and adding real, sports car buying, holiday taking, coke snorting “wealth”.

Pulling together the money, reading a bit about what you are doing, tracking down a broker, and selecting from thousands of stocks to individually purchase in minimum board lots is not something Americans do in any great, relative number. According to the Federal Reserve Board “Survey of Consumer Finances”, only about 18% of stock market participation is done in this fashion. Less than one in five Americans has taken the opportunity to work the American dream directly, and pit their guts and faith against the odds.

Certainly, the advances in online technology over the last decade have made stock market participation wider, what with the profusion of discount brokers and do it yourself, on line stock trading. Wall Street on line gaming. Yet, direct participation in the market has only progressed not much beyond the 18% of 2007, from the 13% of 1991. It has never been easier to buy stocks, and with two major booms, so few people availed themselves the chance to ride the big one. Clearly, the stock market does not represent America, where 80% of the population is not participating directly in the fortunes of the corporate assets of the country, and are not a participating part of a fundamental of free market capitalism.

Contemporary culture is slathered in headlines of Wall Street, the DOW, and NASAQ, giving the impression of a country deeply wired to the fortunes of the market across all demographic spectrums. Stock market participation analysis however, clearly identifies serious barriers to entry that make Wall Street a decidedly closed, club.