Average Income in America: What salary in the United States puts you in the top 50%, top 10%, and top 1%? (Updated for 2021)

You’ve probably heard of “the 1%.” They’re the absurdly wealthy who have more wealth than the remaining 99% (based on data from Credit Suisse).

But what does it take to be in the 10%? 20%?

Is it still stunningly wealthy? Or does the line drop quickly?

We know that the average net worth of Americans is lower than you’d guess, but what about income? Is it the same?

So many questions!

Fortunately for us, we have two reputable data sources for this type of information:

  • The Social Security Administration. Everyone who earns a paycheck will make payments to Social Security and Medicare, so they have that information as wage statistics. (last refreshed with 2019 data, which is the most recent dataset)
  • The U.S. Census Bureau collects this information too. The latest is based on the latest Current Population Survey (CPS) and Annual Social and Economic Supplements (ASEC).

Whereas the SSA collects actual wage data, the Census Bureau conducts surveys and estimates values. Another big difference is that the SSA collects individual wage information and the Census estimates household income, so it is not accurate to compare them with one another.

(We used U.S. Census data when looking at average net worth of Americans)

We’re going to look at the Social Security Administration data first (since it’s based on actual data) and then the U.S. Census Bureau’s estimates (since it’s based on surveys).

Quick Summary: According to Social Security data from 2019, the latest release, the median household income was $34,248.45, an increase over 2017 ($32,838.05).
Table of Contents
  1. Average Wage Index (SSA)
  2. Top 1%
  3. The Middle – 50%
  4. Deciles (and more)
  5. The Wealthy Are Absurdly Wealthy
  6. Median Household Income (U.S. Census)
  7. Median Income for Households by Age
  8. Income Distribution
  9. Average Income by Education

Average Wage Index (SSA)

SSA Logo

First, a definition – the national average wage index is calculated using compensation that’s subject to Federal income taxes as reported on W-2 Forms. This includes wages, tips, etc.

It doesn’t capture a household’s entire income throughout the year. This is strictly a measure of how much they earn from day jobs.

For example, dividends and capital gains aren’t included because they’re not wages. There’s also a little complexity involved with deferred compensation plans but for the purposes of our discussion, this level of specificity isn’t necessary.

Quick clarification on SSA numbers – they produce two “average wage” numbers. The first number is the average wage number calculated directly from their data. The second number is a calculation that takes last year’s average and multiplies it with the annual percentage change in average wages, which they calculated from their tabulated wage data. I don’t know why they do this but it results in two different numbers.

According to the SSA, the average wage in 2019 was $51,916.27. (calculated from actual data)

(The second average, calculated by multiplying last year’s average by the annual change in wages, is $54,099.99)

For fun, the figures below concerning percentages are taken from the data SSA provides but are themselves not averages (or medians). So the average of the Top 1% is not $250,000 a year – it’s how much you need to earn to be within the top 1% of wage earners.

Top 1%

This may surprise you but to be in the top 1% of wage earners in the United States in 2019, you need to earn over $250,000 a year.

A quarter-million is a ton of money to earn in a year, that’s for sure, but I bet you thought 1% would require a much higher number.

The Middle – 50%

Here’s another number that may surprise you – to be in the top half (50%) of all earners you need to earn somewhere between $25,000 – $29,999.99 a year. The number of people earning less than $30,000 accounts for 46.5% of the population.

The 2018 Poverty Guidelines for a family of four is $25,100 ($31,380 in Alaska and $28,870 in Hawaii).

Mull that one over for a minute…

Deciles (and more)

The deciles won’t be too clean-cut because the table is set up as salary ranges, but you can read this table as “how much do I need to earn to be considered top X% of salary earners.”

(A range means the decile falls somewhere in that range)

  • 1%: $250,000
  • 5%: $140,000
  • 10%: $100,000
  • 20%: $65,000
  • 30%: $45,000
  • 40%: $35,000
  • 50%: $25,000
  • 60%: $20,000
  • 70%: $10,000
  • 80%: $5,000
  • 90%: $0.01 — $4,999
Income increases almost linearly until you reach the top deciles (2017 SSA data).

The Wealthy Are Absurdly Wealthy

These two (and a half) facts will boggle the mind:

  • In 2019, there were 222 households (out of 169,328,746) with wages over $50 million.
  • In the 2015 data, there were 202 households that made over $50 million. In 2016, it was only 143.
  • In 2019, there were 165,536 households with wages over $1 million.

Those are just wages. If someone made over $50,000,000 in a year, how much you want to be they have other sources of revenue (dividend, capital gains, etc.)?

They pull in WAY more than $50 million!

Another little “oddity:” (which holds true for 2019, but this is 2015 data in the chart)

Source Data: Social Security Administration Wage Statistics for 2015


On the X axis you have the ranges of wages and on the Y axis you have the count of households. You’d expect the chart to just slope downwards, as there are fewer and fewer households included in higher incomes.

But there are two hitches, indicated with the red 1 and green 2. Red 1 is the $200,000 – $250,000 range and Green 2 is $500,000 — $999,999.

At first, I was trying to understand why this might exist. Could there be tax implications? Perhaps there is some rule somewhere else that had folks trying to pull their income down?

No – the rows of the table aren’t equal. That range is just wider!

Up until the Red 1 range, the rows had a range of $5,000. With Red 1, the range jumped to $50,000. The same is true for Green 2, the range jumped to $500,000. There are more hitches but they’re not visible in the chart, but it’s the same reason.

For a second thought I thought maybe something fun was happening like people shifting around their income to avoid tax law changes at different tiers… sadly no.

Median Household Income (U.S. Census)

The data is from 2019 and it’s organized slightly differently than the data from the Social Security Administration. Since the SSA has real data and the Census surveys households (~126,000), the Census uses more ranges and tries to reach statistically significant results (since it’s based on a sample).

You cannot compare the two datasets. I presented the SSA data first since it’s real data (somewhat incomplete) but the Census information is useful too.

The median household income was $68,703 (+/- $420).

Median Income for Households by Age

Age of HouseholderMedian Income
Under 65:$77,873
15 – 24$47,934
25 – 34:$70,283
35 – 44:$88,858
45 – 54:$92,221
55 – 64:$75,686
65+:$47,357

Income Distribution

Income RangePercent Distribution
Under $15,00010.21%
$15,000 – $24,9998.9%
$25,000 – $34,9998.78%
$35,000 – $49,99912.01%
$50,000 – $74,99917.20%
$75,000 – $99,99912.48%
$100,000 – $149,99914.95%
$150,000 – $199,9996.96%
$200,000+8.51%

When you couple this data with the average net worth data, it can be very sobering.

Average Income by Education

With student loan debt topping $1.6065 trillion (HOLY CRAP) as of June 2019, you might be wondering if there’s a relationship between average income and education.

There is:

Median weekly earnings in 2014

The sexes are combined and separated into four categories – less than high school, high school graduates, some college/associate degree, and bachelor’s degree or higher. These are 2014 dollars:

  • Less than high school – $488/week ($25,376/yr)
  • High school graduates – $668/week ($35,776/yr)
  • Some college/associate degree – $761/week ($39,572/yr)
  • Bachelor’s degree or higher – $1,193/week ($62,036/yr)

What you study matters, but overall the more education you have the better off you’re likely to be. There is a huge difference between those who start college and those who finish.

Also, this doesn’t capture where they are opportunities in the workplace because of uneven supply and demand for work. For example, here are 14 jobs that make over $70,000 and don’t require a college degree. The data comes from the BLS and include jobs that are in high demand, require some on-the-job training, but do not require college.

One prime example is something you’ve probably used many times before – an elevator. Elevator installers and repairers have a median income of $79,480. You will likely need to go to technical school or get an apprenticeship to learn the trade, college is not necessary.

Lastly, income doesn’t tell the whole picture (for example, it’s hard to know what is wage income and what is cashflow investments) but these numbers do open your eyes.

What are your biggest takeaways from this data?

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About Jim Wang

Jim Wang is a thirty-something father of four who is a frequent contributor to Forbes and Vanguard's Blog. He has also been fortunate to have appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Entrepreneur, and Marketplace Money.

Jim has a B.S. in Computer Science and Economics from Carnegie Mellon University, an M.S. in Information Technology - Software Engineering from Carnegie Mellon University, as well as a Masters in Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. His approach to personal finance is that of an engineer, breaking down complex subjects into bite-sized easily understood concepts that you can use in your daily life.

One of his favorite tools (here's my treasure chest of tools,, everything I use) is Personal Capital, which enables him to manage his finances in just 15-minutes each month. They also offer financial planning, such as a Retirement Planning Tool that can tell you if you're on track to retire when you want. It's free.

He is also diversifying his investment portfolio by adding a little bit of real estate. But not rental homes, because he doesn't want a second job, it's diversified small investments in a few commercial properties and farms in Illinois, Louisiana, and California through AcreTrader.

Recently, he's invested in a few pieces of art on Masterworks too.

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  1. Himanshu Bhatnagar says

    If 10M people move up from 25K annually to 50K annually. It will add $25 Trillion to the US economy in a decade.

    If we improve the skills of 10 M people by better education and training by assigning a 500 teachers per 10000 people, at $70K each, an investment of $35M for 1 year per hundred people will result in additional generation of $250MM wealth per year.

    So with an investment of $350MM we can over a 10 year period produces $2.5B of wealth annually.

  2. Russel Olinger says

    My biggest take away from this is the 1% everyone is always railing against is really comprised of upper middle class income. Making $250k a year does NOT make your rich – not even close. But if you are smart, save and invest, you can turn those incomes into higher networths. However, ppl who make $250k+ a year simply don’t start making that money at age 22…they are probably well into their 40s before they start making that money – and it took them 20+ years to get there.

    So the real 1% that seemingly most of America wants to hate is really the .01% – those with $1M or higher in annual income.

  3. keran wang says

    typo in ‘There were 205 households (out of 165,438,239) with wages over $50 million. They’re in the top 0.0000000123913%.’
    It shlould be 1.23913E-6 not that many zeros.

  4. Bo G. says

    Thank you for sharing this. I gather 3 main things from this information.

    1. the “top 1%” is hated far more than they should be.

    2. I think we focus as a society far more on formal education than we should. A college degree is a great way to move from 30K a year to 60K a year. But a college degree does almost nothing to move you from 150K to 300K. That space is reserved for people who have proven they are an asset to a company, or start a company themselves. Degrees look good on resumes, but proving you can make a company millions is how you land the high making jobs.

    3. The spike at 250k and 500k are really interesting. The reason I believe they spike up these places is all about the mindset of people. Most people have bought into the lie that with their curcumstance (education, gender, race, upbringing) that they can only make 40 or 50K. “This is just the income for people like me.” And they slowly make 1% more each year as they age, thus the downward slope. Then something special happens, when you believe that it’s possible to make 1/4 million a year, all the sudden a lot of people do it. You would see the same type of graph for mile-run times. Back when it was “humanly impossible” to run a mile under 4 minutes , no one ever did. Now that it has been proven possible, I think we would see a graph that shows most people at a 10 minute mile a lot of people around 7 and 8 minutes with a slope downward towards 4, then a big spike at 3:59.

    You become what you consistantly think about.
    Thanks for listening to my rant.

    • Joe says

      If you start your life in a poor family, your chances of landing a great job in a company after attending a good college is very small. Starting in a family that has a middle or upper class income improves your chances greatly.

  5. Ravi says

    Capitalism in my opinion doesn’t work, by your own numbers if a country has about 50 % of its people living basically at the poverty level…..makes you think if it’s a good system. Can you think of any system in your house that works 50 percent of the time and would be happy with it? Capitalism has a good spirit, but the end results are is the mass become poor and get screwed. I would be happy if everyone got the same thing. Same house, same food, same car. The difference would be is to keep yourself an individual Is to dedicate your time to the arts and sciences and inventions and discovery to improve mankind…..you wouldn’t have to worry about all the bs money and all of its red tape. Just live simple and be happy.

    • Filip says

      Beautiful statement Ravi. Things are somewhat better in a few other countries but globally it’s still a mess indeed. I can’t even imagine what those 50% have to go through every day.

  6. Toad says

    Being poor isn’t sad (if you are young) and being old isn’t sad (if you have wealth.) What’s sad is if you are both old AND poor. That’s a bad combination. And it’s worse if you have grown children… because once you become a burden, they will put you in the cheapest home they can find. Nobody wants to pay for an elderly parent who never learned how to manage money. Nobody.

  7. Steve King says

    Can you kindly help us understand the difference between Median Household Income and Householder? e.g. The median household income was $63,179 (+/- $420). Then, “Median Income for Households by Age
    Age of Householder 65 – Median Income 43k”. When looking at the”Age of Householder” , it’s not clear if the Household Income includes all wage earners in the house, or the principal wage earner, or something else. Also, what is the median household: one, two , four, or more individuals?
    Thanks!

    • Jim Wang says

      The median household income is the median across the entire population whereas the median household income by age table slices up the population into groupings.

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