(This was recently updated with the latest Census Bureau survey data from 2018)
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 2017 data)
- The U.S. Census Bureau collects this information too. The latest is based on the 2018 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).
Average Wage Index (SSA)
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.
According to the SSA, the average wage in 2017 was $48,251.57. (calculated from actual data)
(the second average, calculated by multiplying last year's average by the annual change in wages, is $50,321.89)
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.
This may surprise you but to be in the top 1% of wage earners in the United States in 2017, 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 more than $29,999.99 a year. The number of people earning less than $30,000 accounts for 48.06% 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%: $135,000
- 10%: $95,000
- 20%: $65,000
- 30%: $50,000
- 40%: $40,000
- 50%: $30,000
- 60%: $20,000
- 70%: $15,000
- 80%: $5,000
- 90%: $0.01 — $4,999
The Wealthy Are Absurdly Wealthy
These two (and a half) facts will boggle the mind:
- There were 205 households (out of 165,438,239) with wages over $50 million. They're in the top 0.0000000123913%.
- In the 2015 data, there were 202 households that made over $50 million. In 2016, it was only 143.
- There were 74,695 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.)?
I would bet they pull in more than $50 million!
Another little “oddity:” (which holds true for 2017, but this is 2015 data in the chart)
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 2018 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 $63,179 (+/- $420). The mean household income was $90,021.
Median Income for Households by Age
|Age of Householder||Median Income|
|15 – 24||$43,531|
|25 – 34:||$65,890|
|35 – 44:||$80,743|
|45 – 54:||$84,464|
|55 – 64:||$68,951|
|Income Range||Percent Distribution|
|$15,000 – $24,999||8.9%|
|$25,000 – $34,999||8.78%|
|$35,000 – $49,999||12.01%|
|$50,000 – $74,999||17.20%|
|$75,000 – $99,999||12.48%|
|$100,000 – $149,999||14.95%|
|$150,000 – $199,999||6.96%|
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.
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?