Affluence in the United States

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Breakdowns of individuals and households with incomes exceeding $60,000 (2005 data).[1][2]

Affluence in the United States refers to an individual's or household's state of being in an economically favorable position in contrast to a given reference group.[3] While there are no precise guidelines or thresholds for what may be considered affluent, the United States Department of Commerce's Bureau of the Census does provide detailed statistical data on the economic state of America's population.

Income, measured either by household or individual, is perhaps the most commonly used measure for whether or not a given entity may be considered affluent. The term's usage varies greatly depending on context and speaker. Both an upper middle class person with a personal income of $77,500 annually and a billionaire may be referred to as affluent. If the average American with a median income of roughly $32,000[4] ($39,000 for those employed full-time between the ages of 25 and 64)[5] was used as a reference group, the upper middle class person with a personal income in the tenth percentile of $77,500 may indeed be referred to as affluent.[4] If compared to an executive of the Fortune 500, however, the upper middle class person would be poor.[6][7]

Currently, marketing corporations and investment houses classify those with household incomes exceeding $75,000 as mass affluent, while sociologist Leonard Beeghley identifies all those with a net worth of $1 million or more as "rich." The upper class is most commonly defined as the top 1% with household incomes commonly exceeding $250,000 annually. These two figures should be seen only as guidelines based upon the top 1% of a population because net worth exceeding $1 million may be increasingly inaccurate as an upper class indicator as the value of the dollar falls due to inflation. Nonetheless, according to the New York Times on July 22, 2014, the "richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent".[8]

The U.S. Census Bureau offers income data by household and individual. 42% of households have two income earners; thus making households' income levels higher than personal income levels.[9] The 2005 economic survey revealed the income distribution for households and individuals whereby the top 5% of individuals had six figure incomes (exceeding $100,000) and the top 10% of individuals had incomes exceeding $75,000.[4] The top 5% of households, three quarters of whom had two income earners, had incomes of $166,200 (about 10 times the 2009 minimum wage in the US) or more,[9] with the top 10% having incomes well in excess of $100,000.[10] The top 1.5% of households had incomes exceeding $250,000 with 146,000 households, the top 0.12%, having incomes exceeding $1,600,000 annually.[11]

Households may also be differentiated among each other, depending on whether or not they have one or multiple income earners. The high female participation in the economy means that many households have two working members.[12] In 2005 for example, the median households income for a two income earner households was $67,000. The median income for an individual employed full-time with a graduate degree was in excess of $60,000, concluding that nearly half of those with graduate degree are able to out-earn most dual income households with one-income.[5]

The average home in the United States has more than 700 square feet per person, which is 50% - 100% more than in other high-income countries. Even in the lowest income percentiles people enjoy more space than middle classes in Europe. Likewise even in the lowest percentiles ownership rates of gadgets and amenities are exceptionally high compared to other countries.[13][14] The labor market in the United States has attracted immigrants from all over the world and its net migration rate is among the highest in the world.

Overall the term affluent may be applied to a variety of individuals, households or other entities depending on context. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau serves as the main guideline for defining affluence. U.S. government data not only reveals the nation's income distribution but also provides data regarding the demographic characteristics of those to whom the term, affluent, may be applied.[9]

Top percentiles[edit]

Affluence and economic standing within society often are expressed in terms of percentile ranking. Economic ranking is conducted either in terms of giving lower thresholds for a designated group (e.g. the top 5%, 10%, 15%, etc.) or in terms of the percentage of households/individuals with incomes above a certain thresholds (e.g. above $75,000, $100,000, $150,000, etc.). The table below presents 2006 income data in terms of the lower thresholds for the given percentages (e.g. the top 25.6% of households had incomes exceeding $80,000, compared to $47,000 for the top quarter of individuals).[4][10]

Data Top third Top quarter Top quintile Top 15% Top 10% Top 5% Top 3% Top 1.5% Top 0.1%[11]
Household income[10]
Lower threshold (annual gross income) $65,000 $80,000 $91,202 $100,000 $118,200 $166,200 $200,000 $250,000 $1,600,000
Exact Percentage of households 34.72% 25.60% 20.00% 17.80% 10.00% 5.00% 2.67% 1.50% 0.12%
Personal income (age 25+)[4]
Lower threshold (annual gross income) $37,500 $47,500 $52,500 $62,500 $75,000 $100,000 N/A
Exact Percentage of individuals 33.55% 24.03% 19.74% 14.47% 10.29% 5.63% N/A

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006[4][10]

Over time[edit]

This graph shows the income of the given percentiles from 1967 to 2003, in 2003 dollars.[15]
This graph shows the income of the given percentiles from 1947 to 2007, in 2007 dollars.[16]

Household income changes over the course of time, with income gains being substantially larger for the upper, than for the lower, percentiles.[17] All areas of the income strata saw their incomes rise since the late 1960s, especially during the late 1990s.[15]

The overall increase in household income is largely the result of an increased percentage of households with more than one income earner. While households with just one income earner, most commonly the male, were the norm in the middle of the 20th century, 42% of all households and the vast majority of married couple households now have two or more income earners. With so many present day households having two income earners, a substantial increase in household income is easy to explain.[12]

"The typical middle-class household in the United States is no longer a one-earner family, with one parent in the workforce and one at home full-time. Instead, the majority of families with small children now have both parents rising at dawn to commute to jobs so they can both pull in paychecks... Today the median income for a fully employed male is $41,670 per year (all numbers are inflation-adjusted to 2004 dollars)—nearly $800 less than his counterpart of a generation ago. The only real increase in wages for a family has come from the second paycheck earned by a working mother." – Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Magazine.[12]

Two income earner households are far more common among the top quintile of households than the general population. 2006 U.S. Census Bureau data indicates that over three quarters, 76%, of households in the top quintile, with annual incomes exceeding $91,200, had two or more income earners compared to just 42% among the general population and a small minority in the bottom three quintiles. As a result much of the rising income inequity between the upper and lower percentiles can be explained through the increasing percentage of households with two or more incomes.[12][17]

Data 2003 2000 1997 1994 1991 1988 1985 1982 1979 1976 1973 1970 1967
20th percentile   $17,984   $19,142   $17,601   $16,484   $16,580   $17,006   $16,306   $15,548   $16,457   $15,615   $15,844  $15,126  $14,002
Median (50th)   $43,318   $44,853   $42,294   $39,613   $39,679   $40,678   $38,510   $36,811   $38,649   $36,155   $37,700  $35,832  $33,338
80th percentile   $86,867   $87,341   $81,719   $77,154   $74,759   $75,593   $71,433   $66,920   $68,318   $63,247   $64,500  $60,148  $55,265
95th percentile  $154,120   $155,121   $144,636   $134,835   $126,969   $127,958   $119,459   $111,516   $111,445   $100,839   $102,243   $95,090   $88,678 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau (2004): "Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2003", p. 36 et seq. All figures are inflation-adjusted and given in 2003 dollars.[15]

Median income levels[edit]

Median income levels
Households Persons, age 25 or older with earnings Household income by race or ethnicity
All households Dual earner
households
Per household
member
Males Females Both sexes Asian Non-Hispanic White Hispanic
(of any race)
Black
$46,326 $67,348 $23,535 $39,403 $26,507 $32,140 $57,518 $48,977 $34,241 $30,134
Median personal income by educational attainment
Measure Some High School High school graduate Some college Associate's degree Bachelor's degree or higher Bachelor's degree Master's degree Professional degree Doctorate degree
Persons, age 25+ w/ earnings $20,321 $26,505 $31,054 $35,009 $49,303 $43,143 $52,390 $82,473 $70,853
Male, age 25+ w/ earnings $24,192 $32,085 $39,150 $42,382 $60,493 $52,265 $67,123 $100,000 $78,324
Female, age 25+ w/ earnings $15,073 $21,117 $25,185 $29,510 $40,483 $36,532 $45,730 $66,055 $54,666
Persons, age 25+, employed full-time $25,039 $31,539 $37,135 $40,588 $56,078 $50,944 $61,273 $100,000 $79,401
Household $22,718 $36,835 $45,854 $51,970 $73,446 $68,728 $78,541 $100,000 $96,830
Household income distribution
Bottom 10% Bottom 20% Bottom 25% Middle 33% Middle 20% Top 25% Top 20% Top 5% Top 1.5% Top 1%
$0 to $10,500 $0 to $18,500 $0 to $22,500 $30,000 to $62,500 $35,000 to $55,000 $77,500 and up $92,000 and up $167,000 and up $250,000 and up $350,000 and up
Source: US Census Bureau, 2006; income statistics for the year 2005

Professions[edit]

Median annual earnings of selected professions as well as the national median income of full-time, year-round employed workers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The vast majority of Americans derive the majority of their income from occupational earnings.[18] Income derived from an occupation is largely determined by scarcity and the economic law of supply and demand. The more demand for a certain specialty and the less supply, the higher the income. There has been shown to be a correlation between increases in income and increases in worker satisfaction. The decrease in worker dissatisfaction, however, is not solely a result of the increase in income. Workers in more complex and higher level occupations tend to have attained higher levels of education and thus are more likely to have a greater degree of autonomy in the workplace.[18]

Additionally higher level workers with advanced degrees are hired to share their personal knowledge, to conceptualize, and to consult. Higher-level workers suffer less job alienation and reap not only external benefits in terms of income from their jobs, but also enjoy high levels of intrinsic motivation and satisfaction.[7][18]

In the United States the highest earning occupational group is white collar professionals. Individuals in this occupational classification tend to experience the highest job satisfaction and highest incomes. Defining income based on title of a profession is fairly inaccurate, given that a professional title may indicate the type of education received, but does not always correlate with the actual day to day income producing endeavors that are pursued. Some sources cite the profession of physician in the United States as the highest paying,[7]

Physician (M.D. and D.O.) compensation ranks as the highest median annual earnings of any profession. Median annual earnings ranged from $156,010 for family physicians to $321,686 for anesthesiologists. Surgeons post a median annual income of $282,504.[19] However, the annual salary for Chief Executive Officer (C.E.O.) is projected quite differently based on source: Salary.com reports a median salary of $634,941,[20] while the U.S. Department of Labor in May 2004 reported the median as $140,350.[21] This is primarily due to a methodological difference in terms of which companies were surveyed.[citation needed] Overall annual earnings among the nation's top 25 professions ranged from the $70,000s to the $300,000s. In addition to physicians, lawyers, physicists, and nuclear engineers were all among the nation's 20 highest paid occupations with incomes in excess of $78,410.[22]

Some of the other occupations in the high five-figure range were economists with a median of $72,780,[23] mathematicians with $81,240,[24] financial managers with $81,880,[25] and software publishers with median annual earnings of $73,060.[26] Median annual of wage-and-salary pharmacists in May 2006 were $94,520. Median annual of wage-and-salary engineers in November 2011 were $90,000. The middle 50 percent earned between $83,180 and $108,140 a year (as in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008–09 Edition by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Education[edit]

Educational attainment plays a major factor in determining an individual's economic disposition. Personal income varied greatly according to an individual's education, as did household income. Incomes for those employed, full-time, year-round and over the age of twenty-five ranged from $20,826 ($17,422 if including those who worked part-time[4]) for those with less than a ninth grade education to $100,000 for those with professional degrees ($82,473 if including those who work part-time[4]).

This median income for individuals with doctorates was $79,401 ($70,853 if including those who work part-time[4]).[27] These statistics reveal that the majority of those employed full-time with professional or doctoral degrees are among the overall top 10% (15% if including those who work part-time) of income earners. Of those with a master's degree, nearly 50% were among the top quarter of income earners (top third if including those who work part-time).[4]

Race[edit]

Percent of households with six figure incomes and individuals with incomes in the top 10%, exceeding $77,500.
Racial breakdown of households making over $100,000 per year.

Recent U.S. Census Bureau publications indicate a strong correlation between race and affluence. In the top household income quintile, households with incomes exceeding $91,200, Asian Americans and Whites were overrepresented, whereas Hispanics and African Americans were underrepresented. The household income for Asian Americans was, at $61,094, by far the highest,[28] exceeding that of Whites ($48,554) by 26%.[29] Over a quarter, 27.5%, of Asian American households had incomes exceeding $100,000, and another 40% had incomes of over $75,000.[30]

Among White households, who remained near the national median, 18.3% had six figure incomes, while 28.9% had incomes exceeding $75,000.[29] The percentages of households with incomes exceeding $100,000 and $75,000 were far below the national medians for Hispanic and African American households.[31] Among Hispanic households, for example, only 9% had six figure incomes, and 17% had incomes exceeding $75,000.[32] The race gap remained when considering personal income. In 2005, roughly 11% of Asian Americans[33] and 7% of White individuals[34] had six figure incomes, compared to 2.6% among Hispanics[35] and 2.3% among African Americans.[36]

The racial breakdowns of income brackets further illustrate the racial disparities associated with affluence. in 2005, 81.8% of all 114 million households were White (including White Hispanics),[29] 12.2% were African American,[31] 10.9% were Hispanic[32] and 3.7% were Asian American.[28][37] While White households are always near the national median due to Whites being the by far most prevalent racial demographic, the percentages of minority households with incomes exceeding $100,000 strayed considerably from their percentage of the overall population. Asian Americans, who represent the smallest surveyed racial demographic in the overall population, were the found to be the prevalent minority among six figure income households. Among the nearly twenty million households with six figure incomes, 86.9% were White,[29] 5.9% were Asian American,[28] 5.6% were Hispanic[32] and 5.5% were African American.[31] Among the general individual population with earnings, 82.1% were White,[34] 12.7% were Hispanic,[35] 11.0% were African American[36] and 4.6% were Asian American.[33]

Of the top 10% of income earners, those nearly 15 million individuals with incomes exceeding $77,500, Whites and Asians were once again overrepresented with the percentages of African Americans and Hispanics trailing behind considerably. Of the top 10% of earners, 86.7% were White.[34] Asian Americans were the prevalent minority, constituting 6.8% of top 10% income earners, nearly twice the percentage of Asian Americans among the general population.[33] Hispanics, who were the prevalent minority in the general population of income earners, constituted only 5.2% of those in the top 10%,[35] with African Americans being the least represented with 5.1%.[36]

Race Overall Median High School Some College College Graduate Bachelor's Degree Master's Degree Doctorate Degree
Total population All, age 25+ 32,140 26,505 31,054 49,303 43,143 52,390 70,853
Full-time workers, age 25–64 39,509 31,610 37,150 56,027 50,959 61,324 79,292
White alone All, age 25+ 33,030 27,311 31,564 49,972 43,833 52,318 71,268
Full-time workers, age 25–64 40,422 32,427 38,481 56,903 51,543 61,441 77,906
Asian alone All, age 25+ 36,152 25,285 29,982 51,481 42,466 61,452 69,653
Full-time workers, age 25–64 42,109 27,041 33,120 60,532 51,040 71,316 91,430
African American All, age 25+ 27,101 22,379 27,648 44,534 41,572 48,266 61,894
Full-time workers, age 25–64 32,021 26,230 32,392 47,758 45,505 52,858 N/A
Hispanic or Latino All, age 25+ 23,613 22,941 28,698 41,596 37,819 50,901 67,274
Full-time workers, age 25–64 27,266 26,461 33,120 46,594 41,831 53,880 N/A

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2006[38]

Status and stratification[edit]

Economic well-being is often associated with high societal status, yet income and economic compensation are a function of scarcity and act as only one of a number of indicators of social class. It is in the interest of all of society that open positions are adequately filled with a competent occupant enticed to do his or her best.[7] As a result, an occupation that requires a scarce skill, the attainment of which is often documented through an educational degree, and entrusts its occupant with a high degree of influence will generally offer high economic compensation. The high income is meant to ensure that the desired individuals obtain the necessary skills (e.g. medical or graduate school) and complete their tasks with the necessary valor.[39]

Differences in income may, however, be found among occupations of similar sociological nature. The median annual earnings of a physician were in excess of $150,000 in May 2004, compared to $95,000 for an attorney.[19][22] Both occupations require finely tuned and scarce skill sets and both are essential to the well-being of society. Yet, physicians outearned attorneys and other upper middle class professionals by a wide margin as their skill-sets are deemed especially scarce. Overall, high status positions tend to be those requiring a scarce skill and are therefore commonly far better compensated than those in the middle of the occupational strata.[7][39]

...It is essential that the duties of the positions be performed with the diligence that their importance requires. Inevitably, then, a society must have, first, some kind of rewards that it can use as inducements, and, second, some way of distributing these rewards differently according to positions. The rewards and their distribution become part of the social order... If the rights and prequisites of different positions in a society must be unequal, then society must be stratified... Hence every society... must differentiate persons... and must therefore possess a certain amount of institutionalized inequality.

—Kingsley Davis & Wilbert E. Moore, "Some Principles of Stratification", republished in Social Class and Stratification[39]

It is important to note that the above is an ideal type, a simplified model or reality using optimal circumstances. In reality other factors such as discrimination based on race, ethnicity and gender as well as aggressive political lobbying by certain professional organizations also influence personal income. An individual's personal career decisions as well as his or her personal connections within the nation's economic institutions are also likely to have an effect on income, status and whether or not an individual may be referred to as affluent.[6]

In contemporary America it is a combination of all these factors, with scarcity remaining the by far most prominent one, determine a person's economic compensation. Due to higher status professions requiring advanced and thus less commonly found skill sets (including the ability to supervise and work with a considerable autonomy) are better compensated through the means of income, making high status individuals affluent, depending on reference group.[7]

While the two paragraphs above only describe the relationship between status and personal income, household income is also often used to infer status. As a result, the dual income phenomenon presents yet another problem in equating affluence with high societal status. As mentioned earlier in the article 42% of households have two or more income earners, 76% of households with six figure incomes have two or more income earners.[9] Furthermore people are most likely to marry their professional and societal equals. It therefore becomes apparent that the majority of households with incomes exceeding the six figure mark are the result of an economic as well as personal union between two economic equals. Today, two nurses, each making $55,000 a year, can easily outearn a single attorney who makes the median of $95,000 annually.[22][40] Despite household income rising drastically through the union of two economic equals, neither individual has advanced his or her function and position within society. Yet the household (not individual) may have become more affluent, assuming an increase in household members does not off-set the dual-income derived gains.

Academic Class Models
Dennis Gilbert, 2002 William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, 2005 Leonard Beeghley, 2004
Class Typical characteristics Class Typical characteristics Class Typical characteristics
Capitalist class (1%) Top-level executives, high-rung politicians, heirs. Ivy League education common. Upper class (1%) Top-level executives, celebrities, heirs; income of $500,000+ common. Ivy league education common. The super-rich (0.9%) Multi-millionaires whose incomes commonly exceed $350,000; includes celebrities and powerful executives/politicians. Ivy League education common.
Upper middle class[1] (15%) Highly-educated (often with graduate degrees), most commonly salaried, professionals and middle management with large work autonomy. Upper middle class[1] (15%) Highly-educated (often with graduate degrees) professionals & managers with household incomes varying from the high 5-figure range to commonly above $100,000. The Rich (5%) Households with net worth of $1 million or more; largely in the form of home equity. Generally have college degrees.
Middle class (plurality/
majority?; ca. 46%)
College-educated workers with considerably higher-than-average incomes and compensation; a man making $57,000 and a woman making $40,000 may be typical.
Lower middle class (30%) Semi-professionals and craftsmen with a roughly average standard of living. Most have some college education and are white-collar. Lower middle class (32%) Semi-professionals and craftsmen with some work autonomy; household incomes commonly range from $35,000 to $75,000. Typically, some college education.
Working class (30%) Clerical and most blue-collar workers whose work is highly routinized. Standard of living varies depending on number of income earners, but is commonly just adequate. High school education.
Working class (32%) Clerical, pink- and blue-collar workers with often low job security; common household incomes range from $16,000 to $30,000. High school education. Working class
(ca. 40–45%)
Blue-collar workers and those whose jobs are highly routinized with low economic security; a man making $40,000 and a woman making $26,000 may be typical. High school education.
Working poor (13%) Service, low-rung clerical and some blue-collar workers. High economic insecurity and risk of poverty. Some high school education.
Lower class (ca. 14–20%) Those who occupy poorly-paid positions or rely on government transfers. Some high school education.
Underclass (12%) Those with limited or no participation in the labor force. Reliant on government transfers. Some high school education. The poor (ca. 12%) Those living below the poverty line with limited to no participation in the labor force; a household income of $18,000 may be typical. Some high school education.
References: Gilbert, D. (2002) The American Class Structure: In An Age of Growing Inequality. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth; Thompson, W. & Hickey, J. (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon; Beeghley, L. (2004). The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Boston, MA: Pearson, Allyn & Bacon.
1 The upper middle class may also be referred to as "Professional class" Ehrenreich, B. (1989). The Inner Life of the Middle Class. NY, NY: Harper-Colins.


Extreme affluence[edit]

The wide income discrepancies within the top 1.5% of households.

As of 2002, there were approximately 146,000 (0.1%) households with incomes exceeding $1,500,000, while the top 0.01% or 11,000 households had incomes exceeding $5,500,000. The 400 highest tax payers in the nation had gross annual household incomes exceeding $87,000,000. Household incomes for this group have risen more dramatically than for any other. As a result, the gap between those who make less than one and half million dollars annually (99.9% of households) and those who make more (0.1%) has been steadily increasing, prompting The New York Times to proclaim that the "Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind."[41]

Indeed the income disparities within the top 1.5% are quite drastic. While households in the top 1.5% of households had incomes exceeding $250,000, 443% above the national median, their incomes were still 2200% lower than those of the top 0.01% of households. One can therefore conclude that almost any household, even those with incomes of $250,000 annually, are poor when compared to the top 0.1%, who in turn are poor compared to the top 0.000267%, the top 400 taxpaying households. According to PolitiFact and others, the top 400 Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined."[42][43][44][45][46]

See also[edit]

General:

References[edit]

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