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American upper class

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Net personal wealth in the U.S. since 1962
The average personal wealth of people in the top 1% is more than a thousand times that of people in bottom 50%.[1]
The logarithmic scale shows how wealth has increased for all percentile groups, though moreso for wealthier people.[1]

The American upper class is a social group within the United States consisting of people who have the highest social rank, due to economic wealth, lineage, and typically educational attainment.[2][3]

The American upper class is distinguished from the rest of the population due to the fact that its primary source of income consists of assets, investments, and capital gains rather than wages and salaries. Its members include owners of large private companies, heirs to fortunes, and top executives of publicly traded corporations. The American upper class is estimated to be the richest 1% of the population.


Income inequality, by percentile class, normalized to 1970 (PNG)
Income inequality, by percentile class, logarithmic scale (PNG)

The American upper class is seen by some as simply being composed of the wealthiest individuals and families in the country. The American upper class can be broken down into two groups: people of substantial means with a history of family wealth going back a century or more (called "old money") and families who have acquired their wealth more recently (e.g. fewer than 100 years), sometimes referred to as "Nouveau riche".[4][5]

The main distinguishing feature of this class, which includes an estimated 1% of the population, is the source of income. While the vast majority of people and households derive their income from wages or salaries, those in the upper class derive their primary income from business profits, investments, and capital gains.[5] Estimates for the size of this group commonly vary from 1% to 2%, based on wealth.[4]

Many heirs to fortunes, top business executives such as CEOs, owners of large private companies, successful venture capitalists, and celebrities may be considered members of the upper class.[6]

Upper class versus rich[edit]

In some academic models, the rich are considered to constitute 5% of U.S. households, and their wealth is largely in the form of financial assets, such as stocks, bonds, real estate, and private businesses.[6] Other contemporary sociologists, such as Dennis Gilbert, argue that this group is not part of the upper class but rather part of the upper middle class, as its standard of living is largely derived from occupation-generated income and its affluence falls far short of that attained by the top percentile. In a 2015 CNBC survey of the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans, 44% described themselves as middle class and 40% as upper middle class.[7][8][9] Some surveys have indicated that as many as 6% of Americans identify as "upper class."

Sociologist Leonard Beeghley considers total wealth to be the only significant distinguishing feature of this class and refers to the upper class simply as "the rich."[2] Beeghley divides "the rich" into two sub-groups: the rich and the super-rich. The super-rich, according to Beeghley, are those able to live off their wealth without depending on occupation-derived income. This demographic constitutes roughly 1% of American households. Beeghley's definition of the super-rich is congruent with the definition of upper class used by most other sociologists.[10]

Power and influence[edit]

The members of the tiny capitalist class at the top of the hierarchy have an influence on economy and society far beyond their numbers. They make investment decisions that open or close employment opportunities for millions of others. They contribute money to political parties, and they often own media enterprises that allow them influence over the thinking of other classes... The capitalist class strives to perpetuate itself: Assets, lifestyles, values and social networks... are all passed from one generation to the next. –Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998[4]

Sociologists such as W. Lloyd Warner, William Thompson, and Joseph Hickey recognize prestige differences among members of the upper class. Established families, prominent professionals, and politicians may be deemed to have more prestige than some entertainment celebrities; national celebrities, in turn, may have more prestige than members of local elites.[5] However, sociologists argue that all members of the upper class have great wealth and influence, and derive most of their income from assets rather than income.[4]

In 1998, Bob Herbert of The New York Times referred to modern American plutocrats as "The Donor Class", referring to political donations.[11][12] In 2015, the New York Times carried a list of top donors to political campaigns.[13] Herbert had noted that it was "a tiny group – just one-quarter of 1 percent of the population – and it is not representative of the rest of the nation. But its money buys plenty of access."[11]

Theories regarding social class[edit]

Social connectedness to people of higher income levels is a strong predictor of upward income mobility.[14] However, data shows substantial social segregation correlating with economic income groups.[14]

Functional theorists in sociology assert that the existence of social classes is necessary[5] to ensure that only the most qualified persons acquire positions of power, and to enable all persons to fulfill their occupational duties to the greatest extent of their ability. Notably, this view does not address wealth, which plays an important role in allocating status and power. According to this theory, to ensure that important and complex tasks are handled by qualified and motivated personnel, society attaches incentives such as income and prestige to those positions. The more scarce that qualified applicants are and the more essential the given task is, the larger the incentive will be. Income and prestige—which are often used to indicate a person's social class—are incentives given to that person for meeting all qualifications to complete an important task that is of high standing in society due to its functional value.[15]

It should be stressed... that a position does not bring power and prestige because it draws a high income. Rather, it draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is for one reason or another scarce. It is therefore superficial and erroneous to regard high income as the cause of a man's power and prestige, just as it is erroneous to think that a man's fever is the cause of his disease... The economic source of power and prestige is not income primarily, but the ownership of capital goods (including patents, good will, and professional reputation). Such ownership should be distinguished from the possession of consumers' goods, which is an index rather than a cause of social standing. – Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore, Principles of Stratification.

As mentioned above, income is one of the most prominent features of social class, but is not necessarily one of its causes. In other words, income does not determine the status of an individual or household, but rather reflects that status. Income and prestige are the incentives created to fill positions with the most qualified and motivated personnel possible.[15]

If... money and wealth [alone] determine class ranking... a cocaine dealer, a lottery winner, a rock star, and a member of the Rockefeller family-are all on the same rung of the social ladder... [yet most] Americans would be unwilling to accord equal rank to a lottery winner or rock star and a member of one of America's most distinguished families... wealth is not the only factor that determines a person's rank. – William Thompson, Joseph Hickey; Society in Focus, 2005.[5]

Sociologist William Lloyd Warner also asserts the existence of class markers:

We are proud of those facts of American life that fit the pattern we are taught but somehow we are often ashamed of those equally important social facts which demonstrate the presence of social class. Consequently, we tend to deny them, or worse, denounce them and by doing so we tend to deny their existence and magically make them disappear from consciousness.

— W. Lloyd Warner, What is Social Class in America, 1949[16]

Warner asserts that social class is as old as civilization itself and has been present in nearly every society from before the Roman Empire, through medieval times, and to the modern-day United States. He believes that complex societies such as the United States need an equally complex social hierarchy.[16]

Assortative mating in humans has been widely observed and studied. It includes the tendency of humans to prefer to mate within their socio-economic peers, that is, those with similar social standing, job prestige, educational attainment, or economic background as they themselves. This tendency has always been present in society: there was no historical area when most of the individuals preferred to sort, and had actually sorted, negatively into couples or matched randomly along these traits.[17][18][19]


Map of the eight Ivy League universities

Members of the upper class in American society are commonly distinguished by their extensive education and affiliations with prestigious institutions, such as the Ivy League and other private universities.[20] Often hailing from wealthy backgrounds, these individuals benefit from access to elite educational opportunities that serve as key mechanisms for maintaining their socioeconomic status across generations.

Upper-class parents prioritize securing their children's positions within their social stratum, frequently by enrolling them in renowned primary schools followed by prestigious middle and high schools. As they progress in their academic journeys, many aspire to attend elite private colleges, with such institutions representing the pinnacle of academic achievement and social prestige. Additionally upper class members may join exclusive clubs, secret societies, or select fraternities and sororities.


The spectrum of wealth accumulation in the United States is characterized by its diversity, mirroring the nation's intricate array of religious beliefs and customs. While individuals from diverse religious backgrounds have attained affluence, discernible trends emerge concerning the religious affiliations prevalent among the affluent segment of the population.

Within the American upper class, Mainline Protestantism stands out prominently in terms of religious representation. Among its various denominations, Episcopalians and Presbyterians notably feature prominently among the affluent segment of society. These denominations, steeped in historical connections to prosperous communities and esteemed institutions, have fostered networks of privilege and influence that permeate economic realms.

Episcopalians frequently originate from socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds and have traditionally occupied leadership roles in various spheres such as business, academia, and politics. Their focus on education, traditional values, and social obligation has fostered a climate of achievement and charitable giving within Episcopal circles, enabling the transmission and endurance of affluence through successive generations.

Presbyterians have exerted significant influence on American economic and cultural landscapes, leveraging their cohesive community dynamics and shared values to advance financial prosperity. Rooted in Calvinist principles emphasizing diligence, discipline, and stewardship, Presbyterian congregations have cultivated an ethos of entrepreneurship and accomplishment congruent with the pursuit of material success in the United States.

Apart from Mainline Protestantism, various religious communities have made notable contributions to the economic landscape of the United States. Jewish-Americans, in particular, have demonstrated exceptional achievements in finance, law, and entertainment throughout history. Their cultural emphasis on education, entrepreneurship, and communal solidarity has played a pivotal role in their pursuit of financial prosperity and success in diverse sectors of American society.

Similarly, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh communities have witnessed significant instances of wealth accumulation and entrepreneurial success, underscoring the rich diversity and vibrancy of America's religious landscape. Members of these communities, ranging from pioneering Silicon Valley innovators to influential figures in Wall Street finance, have left an indelible imprint on the American economy.

Empirical distribution of income[edit]

One 2009 empirical analysis analyzed an estimated 15–27% of the individuals in the top 0.1% of adjusted gross income (AGI), including top executives, asset managers, law firm partners, professional athletes and celebrities, and highly compensated employees of investment banks.[21] Among other results, the analysis found that individuals in the financial (Wall Street) sector constitute a greater percent of the top income earners in the United States than individuals from the non-financial sector, after adjusting for the relative sizes of the sectors.


Median U.S. household income per County in 2021, showing the distribution of income geographically in the United States

There are 3,144 counties and county-equivalents in the United States. The 2020 United States census provided data on the 100 counties with the highest median household income.[22] Virginia has the most counties in the top 100 with 18 followed by California with 11; Maryland with 10; New Jersey with nine; New York and Texas with six each; Illinois with five; Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota with four each; Ohio and Pennsylvania with three each; Georgia, Indiana, Utah, and Washington with two each; and Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Wisconsin with one each.

A study by Larry Bartels found a positive correlation between Senate votes and opinions of high income people, conversely, low income people's opinions had a negative correlation with senate votes.[23]
Top 5 states by high net worth individuals (more than $1 million, in 2009)[24]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
Hawaii 6.4% 28,363
Maryland 6.3% 133,299
New Jersey 6.2% 197,694
Connecticut 6.2% 82,837
Virginia 5.5% 166,596
Bottom 5 states by high net worth individuals (more than $1 million, in 2009)[24]
State Percentage of millionaire households Number of millionaire households
South Dakota 3.4% 10,646
Kentucky 3.3% 57,059
West Virginia 3.3% 24,941
Arkansas 3.1% 35,286
Mississippi 3.1% 33,792

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Evolution of wealth indicators, USA, 1913-2019". WID.world. World Inequality Database. 2022. Archived from the original on July 5, 2023. Retrieved September 6, 2023.
  2. ^ a b Beeghley, Leonard (2004). The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-37558-8.
  3. ^ "Upper class".
  4. ^ a b c d Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure. New York: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-50520-1.
  5. ^ a b c d e Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X.
  6. ^ a b "9.3B: The Upper Class". Social Sci LibreTexts. 2022-01-02. Retrieved 2024-02-21.
  7. ^ "Millionaires say they're middle class"
  8. ^ Who is middle class and why it matters Forbes, 4 August 2015
  9. ^ The Middle class Millionaire
  10. ^ "The Richest of the Rich, Proud of a New Gilded Age", article by Louis Uchitelle, The New York Times, July 15, 2007.
  11. ^ a b Herbert, Bob (July 19, 1998). "The Donor Class". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  12. ^ Confessore, Nicholas; Cohen, Sarah; Yourish, Karen (October 10, 2015). "The Families Funding the 2016 Presidential Election". The New York Times. Retrieved March 10, 2016.
  13. ^ Lichtblau, Eric; Confessore, Nicholas (October 10, 2015). "From Fracking to Finance, a Torrent of Campaign Cash – Top Donors List". The New York Times. Retrieved March 11, 2016.
  14. ^ a b Data from Chetty, Raj; Jackson, Matthew O.; Kuchler, Theresa; Stroebel, Johannes; et al. (August 1, 2022). "Social capital I: measurement and associations with economic mobility". Nature. 608 (7921): 108–121. Bibcode:2022Natur.608..108C. doi:10.1038/s41586-022-04996-4. PMC 9352590. PMID 35915342. Charted in Leonhardt, David (August 1, 2022). "'Friending Bias' / A large new study offers clues about how lower-income children can rise up the economic ladder". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 1, 2022.
  15. ^ a b Levine, Rhonda (1998). Social Class and Stratification. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8543-8.
  16. ^ a b Warner, Lloyd; Marchia Meeker; Kenneth Eells (1949). What is Social Class in America, Lloyd Warner. New York, NY: Irvington Publishers.
  17. ^ Mare, Robert D. (1991-01-01). "Five Decades of Educational Assortative Mating". American Sociological Review. 56 (1): 15–32. doi:10.2307/2095670. JSTOR 2095670.
  18. ^ Naszodi, A.; Mendonca, F. (2021). "A new method for identifying the role of marital preferences at shaping marriage patterns". Journal of Demographic Economics. 1 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1017/dem.2021.1.
  19. ^ Naszodi, A.; Mendonca, F. (2022). "Changing educational homogamy: Shifting preferences or evolving educational distribution?". Journal of Demographic Economics. 1 (1): 1–29. doi:10.1017/dem.2022.21.
  20. ^ Doob, B. Christopher (2013). Social Inequality and Social Stratification in US Society (1st ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education. ISBN 978-0-205-79241-2.
  21. ^ Kaplan SN, Rauh J. (2009). Wall Street and Main Street: What Contributes to the Rise in the Highest Incomes?. Review of Financial Studies.
  22. ^ "QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. Retrieved September 7, 2022.
  23. ^ Based on Larry Bartels's study Economic Inequality and Political Representation Archived 2011-09-15 at the Wayback Machine, Table 1: Differential Responsiveness of Senators to Constituency Opinion.
  24. ^ a b Phoenix Marketing International Research Shows Steep Decline In Millionaires in U.S.

Further reading[edit]

  • Baltzell, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a New Upper Class (1958).
  • Beckert, Sven. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896 (2003).
  • Brooks, David. Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (2010)
  • Burt, Nathaniel. The Perennial Philadelphians: The Anatomy of an American Aristocracy (1999).
  • Cookson, Peter W. and Caroline Hodges Persell: Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools, Basic Books, 1989, ISBN 0-465-06269-5
  • Davis, Donald F. "The Price of Conspicious [sic] Production: The Detroit Elite and the Automobile Industry, 1900-1933." Journal of Social History 16.1 (1982): 21–46. online
  • Farnum, Richard. "Prestige in the Ivy League: Democratization and discrimination at Penn and Columbia, 1890-1970." in Paul W. Kingston and Lionel S. Lewis, eds. The high-status track: Studies of elite schools and stratification (1990).
  • Foulkes, Nick. High Society: The History of America's Upper Class, (Assouline, 2008) ISBN 2759402886
  • Fraser, Steve and Gary Gerstle, eds. Ruling America: A History of Wealth and Power in a Democracy, Harvard UP, 2005, ISBN 0-674-01747-1
  • Ghent, Jocelyn Maynard, and Frederic Cople Jaher. "The Chicago Business Elite: 1830–1930. A Collective Biography." Business History Review 50.3 (1976): 288–328. online
  • Hood. Clifton. In Pursuit of Privilege: A History of New York City's Upper Class and the Making of a Metropolis (2016). covers 1760–1970.
  • Ingham, John N. The Iron Barons: A Social Analysis of an American Urban Elite, 1874-1965 (1978)
  • Jaher, Frederic Cople, ed. The Rich, the Well Born, and the Powerful: Elites and Upper Classes in History (1973), essays by scholars
  • Jaher, Frederick Cople. The Urban Establishment: Upper Strata in Boston, New York, Chicago, Charleston, and Los Angeles (1982).
  • Jensen, Richard. "Family, Career, and Reform: Women Leaders of the Progressive Era." in Michael Gordon, ed., The American Family in Social-Historical Perspective,(1973): 267–80.
  • Lundberg, Ferdinand: The Rich and the Super-Rich: A Study in the Power of Money Today (1968)
  • McConachie, Bruce A. "New York operagoing, 1825-50: creating an elite social ritual." American Music (1988): 181–192. online
  • Ostrander, Susan A. (1986). Women of the Upper Class. Temple University Press. ISBN 978-0-87722-475-4.
  • Phillips, Kevin P. Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich, Broadway Books 2003, ISBN 0-7679-0534-2
  • Story, Ronald. (1980) The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard & the Boston Upper Class, 1800-1870
  • Synnott, Marcia. The Half-Opened Door: Discrimination and Admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, 1900–1970 (2010).
  • Williams, Peter W. Religion, Art, and Money: Episcopalians and American Culture from the Civil War to the Great Depression (2016), especially in New York City