Wealth Distribution in the United States

Financially speaking, there is a great inequality in the United States. Over the last 30 years, while the rich have been getting richer, the poor have been getting steadily poorer. One reason for the growing disparity between the rich and the poor is the fact that most new jobs that are created pay low wages and often do not offer retirement plans or health coverage. Here is a graphic look at the widening gap between the nation’s rich and poor.

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Wealth Distribution in the United States

  • austin

    Who lost the most money in the last quarter of 2008? If the top 1% of losers lost 75% of the wealth then it seems fair that in an up turn the top 1% make 75% of the wealth. And the nominal v. 2009 dollar graph is a little misleading, it seems more a measure of inflation. From what I can tell, it shows the minimum wage not keeping up with inflation which is sort of easy to understand given our ridiculous levels of inflation and the bullet-train-fast devaluation of the dollar. I am a very strong supporter of social programs and increased spending to raise the standard of living for the poorest among us but I feel like I’m having the wool pulled over my eyes, and it’s a shame because the fact that more rules need to be put in to place to protect the poorest among us is almost a self evident truth, even on the most cursory study of sociology.

  • Marco

    This is potentially very misleading. It ignores two facts. First, the US brings in a million new immigrants each year, most of whom are relatively unskilled and hence only capable of lower-pay work. Second, many people who are at the lower end of the pay scale work their way up, from the lower class to the middle class and sometimes to the upper class. So, it’s not the same people around whom the apparent disparity occurs. Rather, the US is a fluid society where people can and do move up; however, because we are also an open society, we are bringing more lower-skilled people currently at a higher pace than ever before.

  • EatTheRich

    Marco is full of it! The classic lie about upward mobility when throughout the history of the United States has NEVER been true. (You think Native Americans believe that Horatio Alger B.S.?) There is not a single fact or actual statistic to show that the US is “a fluid society” except perhaps that we are now swirling around the drain…

  • Look at Marco, the fascist.
    You have to be a slave to move up.
    Then again, you are one and probably quite happy about it.

  • V

    Fuck you marco. Quit trying to spin the fact that 1% of the population takes home 75% of the weath as a consequence of “imigration”. Its a bullshit response and you know it. Its so laughable that you insult yourself by saying it.

    The fact has been obvious for a while the top 1% still arent happy. They wont be happy until they have 100% of the wealth, and the rest of us are slaves to the debt we “owe” them because they “own” everything.

    But dont worry, the game board will be reset soon. History has proven that societies as out of balance as ours, dont last long.

  • Marcoiswrong

    The USA does bring in a lot of immigrants, I guess, if you really think so (I don’t). The immigration system we use allows for a quota, ie: only 50,000 people from one country and so on are allowed in. The number of people in the USA and the world is increasing, which means that the percentages should be getting less and less affected as time goes on. This is because 50,000 of 300 million is less than .5% points.

    Anyways, so that’s the first thing I disagree with. Secondly, most immigrants are very skilled. They have to be now days. Immigrants from Asian countries (India, China, Japan) almost without exception have advanced degrees in Science, Technology, and Medicine. I know everyone likes to “blame the immigrants” but really, this is one case in which doing so would be a travesty.

    On the fact that people “work their way up,” I disagree. If you look at statistics you’ll find that people in the upper middle and upper class had parents from those classes. If those classes are shrinking, then it also suggests that fewer people are “working their way up.”

    The fact that the USA is a “fluid society” where people can move up, I would argue is little more than a dream. The reality of the situation is that we are becoming less and less able to do so. Just look at the past year for example, with small businesses being unable to get loans and going bankrupt. Only the super-wealthy and mega rich have been able to stay afloat.

    You’re a liar about “bringing in lower-skilled people at a higher pace than ever before.” In reality, it is “bringing in fewer, higher skilled laborers than ever before.” And I’m going to see your retort: “But those highly skilled laborers take our jobs!” I guess you have to blame immigrants somehow, am I right?

  • I won’t claim to have understood that, but someone once rightly said to me..that 2-3% of intellectual USA run the country. The incomes just tell the same thing.

  • Russel

    And may I ask Marco where you fall along the income scale? I think you dispute the above findings because you’re closer to the upper end then the lower. I have 3 college degrees and earned my highest wage of my life 5 years ago, $32k. I’m 46. I have no pension and no medical insurance. No one in my entire extended family has medical insurance and only one of my 3 siblings has any retirement. My mother earns around $15k a year and this is the most she’s ever earned. One of my sister was doing quite well with a small business. However due to a prior condition, she was ineligible for health insurance. Now after breaking her neck and being charged $80k for treatment, she too is nearly bankrupt.
    I find the richer live a life of self delusion regarding the poor.

  • Marco, thats pretty ignorant. Social mobility is highly overstated in the US. People born poor don’t have the same opportunites as people born rich, it’s not a level playing field. You don’t have the same educational resources, the same facilities or access to capital. The reason rags to riches stories make it to the media is because they are rare.

    What this information does is show how the great american middle class is being split into haves and have nots. It’s what’d you’d expect from a country dominated almost entirely by the intrests of corporations. A country by the rich, for the rich.

  • sprucemoose

    Why did you reverse time on the x-axis? Weird to look at.

  • LouLou

    Russel: you have 3 college degrees, and at 46 you have a low paying job and no pension or medical insurance? That’s hardly the fault of the “rich” and more the fault of your poor choices, whether it’s getting a degree in a field that has no jobs available, failing to save and/or invest, and finding a job that gets insurance and purchase it yourself. Quit blaming others for your shortcomings.

  • Jon

    Russell – you either are working at Burger King because you can’t find work (which is believable considering it sounds like you have serious social communication skills and probably don’t get along with coworkers very well) or your “3 college degrees” are from fantastical online/poor academic institutions and are in communications, culinary skills, and cosmetology.

    Everyone on here seems to be jumping on Marco – and while he may not be 100% correct he has so decent points. There are definitely still many many immigrants in our society that bring these numbers down. There are currently around 40 million foreign born legal immigrants in the US. Add to that number illegal immigrants (which has been estimated at 30 million) and you could possibly have 70 million foreign born immigrants. Granted, many of them may be skilled/trained, but definitely not the majority. Also, an issue for many immigrants is that they are trained through their own accredited schooles in their home country, but that training/accredidation is not recognized here in the US – so a doctor from India may end up working at McDonalds because no body will confirm his skill set. Add to this that many of these immigrants dont speak English (or dont speak it very well) and they become very undesirable in upper level job sets.

    Now I am not saying there is no issue here. The top earners on Wall Street for example make ENTIRELY too much money. However I am just supporting Marco in saying that the numbers could be skewed and misleading a little bit due to our extremely large immigrant population.

  • andrew

    the “rich” make jobs for the “poor” anyway. you trade the free market for socialism, we trend towards an economic environment like Cuba or the USSR, or less extremely, france. young people can’t get jobs in france, and live off of government cheese.
    rich people in this country, for the most part, risked their money and time to make money. i know that it’s fun to steal their money and give it to the “poor”, but what does that do besides create incentives to not work, for both the poor and the rich. I’ve seen enough people scamming Medicaid and welfare to know that doing that is a bad idea. the poor in this country have some luxuries that ancient kings didn’t have. cars, A/C, computers. And besides, what to the rich do with their money? They invest it, or spend it. making jobs for people. they don’t fill a vault with cash like scrooge mcduck. case in point, bill gates or warren buffet. their “riches” are the value of their companies, not the cash in thier pockets.
    lets face it though, the rich are out to do one thing, make money, because they think that it will make them happy maybe, and the poor are out to steal the rich peoples money, because they think it will make them happy. Where does that leave us? i don’t know, but i know that this country was founded upon the idea that people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. happiness isn’t guaranteed. We have already seen what happens when the rich people loose money. Their company goes out of business and the poor are out of a job. making them poorer. So if you start taxing the rich, this same thing will happen more. whether that is moral or not, is not the problem of the government or “the system”. these things should not be legislated. the system should only serve to ensure that free markets work. such as anti trust laws and that non-insider trading type laws. in these cases, we will all reap benefit, and although the rich may benefit more, we would be throwing away something good to get even with them.
    why do we demonize corporations for trying to make their shareholders money? if you were in the same position, you would try to do the same thing. they don’t have an obligation to the country, but rather to the shareholders. simple in my opinion

  • Tron

    On the gap of rich and poor. The dollar amount looks pretty scary but, if you get the nominal value of the dollar from the 80s the gap is roughly double of what it was in the 80s.(The dollar had 55% more value) In which case it makes it a little less dramatic yet, still something to consider.

  • Chris

    Oldest trick in the book: hide real stats in quintiles. This isn’t 20% of the population, this is the lowest 20% of wages earner. One would expect the lowest fifth to maintain a similar level, as the minimum wage will trail inflation. This says nothing of labor mobility, or the fact that the majority of people in this country will move into the fourth quintile, and something like 1/2 of those in the top quintile will drop, as well.

    Lies, damned lies, and statistics. Made worse by charted statistics.

  • glycol

    Chris – I know you are not into statistics, but sometimes statistics means numbers. Since we are talking numbers, do you have any to back up what you are suggesting? “Something like 1/2” equals what? 50%? 40%? Post a link.

  • Bent

    It is a well known fact that our income disparity has been growing quite rapidly in the United States, especially as compared to other economically developed countries. No one thinks ID is bad, it is just bad at extreme levels and we are slowly getting to that point and nearly diminishing the middle class in entirety. However, as the growth to this point has occurred, most deemed it actually positive, due to it seeming to stem from a growth in capitalism and potential earnings in our country. Combine this with the common pipe dream, or “meritocracy myth” as it is rightly called, that grows very common here in the U.S., and many find ID to be forgivable without having the foresight to see the dangers of its continued growth.

    My biggest complaint: It is still somehow easier to blame the poor in this country for “making themselves poor”, then it is to blame the rich in the country for profiting at the expense of those below them. It is sort of like running up the score at a high school football game.

  • Learn_your_econ

    One of the basics of economics is that money (capital) flows to the most valuable people/resources. LouLou and Jon, great points. Clearly Russel you chose something that may be valuable but you should have anticipated that there would not be much money involved. Blaming the rich for the poor’s problems is wrong and each of you criticizing Macro are idiots for a. not being open minded b. drinking the kool-aid of the liberal media who portrays all rich people as evil.

  • Maybe your should Learn_your_non-neocon_econ?

    A recent study in the UK found hospital cleaners to deliver many times more value to society than bankers. How about Lawyers? Versus trash collectors? Try going one week without trash collectors.

    Money flows to the people who go after it and are good at going after it. I.e. the smart and greedy. We reward greed. It has only a tenuous connection to actual value.

  • mickeyfreakindougal

    I would personally rather be in the “poverty” class knowing I’ve earned my money than be any other class with money that has been forced from others to give me a handout. Does pride mean nothing to liberals? You think what you have defines you when it is really what you do that defines you. And you expect to do nothing and still live the same lifestyle as those who actually bust their butts.

    Minimum wage… bite me. Social Security… bite me. Medicare… bite me. And now Socialized Medicine… bite me. All your “compassion” has led to is a society that cares nothing about earning what it wants, but rather expects you to hand it to them for nothing. Only problem is, Robin Hood, there are fewer and fewer left for you to steal from every day because of your “compassion” and “generosity” has destroyed them.

  • Sam Morgan

    J.P. Morgan once said for a fortune to be made someone must be taken advantage of, and he would have known.

    The inequity has risen to these levels due to the “quarterly mentality” of corporations and thier leaders.

  • Steve

    You should keep the timeline going in the same direction (left to right, past to present) in all your charts & graphs.

    I don’t know why you would switch directions as you did above. Did you like the shape better when the timeline was reversed?!

    This is an elementary rule. And I mean elementary as in elementary school — it is truly that basic!

  • SeesBothSides

    I’ve been reading statistics about wealth distribution all day looking for something to make me think this country really was fair and I failed. The concentration of income and wealth is staggering no matter how you shape the numbers. In 2006 20% of the population earned 60% of the income. In 2007 91% percent of stocks were own by 20% of the population. The most shocking stat I found regards capital income, income from capital gains, dividends, interest, and rents. In 2003 the top 1% of households received 57% of capital income, the top 20% accounted for over 80% while the bottom 80% received 12%. So the rich earn more and are able to have that money make even more money. That’s the American dream and we all wish we could move into that top twenty to make those kind of moves but the fact is the overwhelming majority of us won’t ever be able to do that. What’s more is that the cost of living has risen while average peoples salaries haven’t. Companies make profits either by selling more or paying employees less. We know executives have been doing really well even during a recession while average people are struggling. In times of economic downturn everybody feels it. But to recover the money goes to the top and is supposed to trickle down; it hasn’t been. The stock market rises but unemployment stays the same. Economic mobility is a joke because moving from the bottom half to the top is a difference of a fee thousand dollars while moving into the top 20% puts you into the millions. Only about 150000 people a year file income tax return over a million, what are the odds any of us will br in that group? Something is very wrong here

  • Mike

    The current situation is basically our new kind of slavery. The “middle” class (probably the lower 97%) is in slavery to the top 3%. We work our butts off trying to afford some kind of decent lifestyle. We can’t fathom how we’ll put our kids through college, or save for retirement. We unconsciously line the pockets of the uber-wealthy through insurance payments (anthem wanted $1800/month from me to insure my family!) I finally said screw you! There’s lots of ways the wealthy keep sucking it from us while we pursue our “dream”, and be narcotized by our sports or other entertainment. I heard one ex-goldman uberW replaces his sailing yacht every 4 years and loses 2 million in the process. No big deal.
    Another paid 1.6 million for a house worth 500K just so he doesn’t have to look at it. Just tear it down! Something needs to change! We need to turn off the spigot for the uberW somehow.
    I’m a doctor, an internist. I can’t afford my quarterly taxes currently. 20 years of school plus 3 years of residency and I can’t save money. I don’t live extravantly believe me.

  • James

    Hey Russel, LouLou is right. What are your degrees in and where are they from? I didn’t get a 2-year degree until 2001 and a 4-year degree until 2007. I used to work for minimum wage and actually had my hours cut when it went from $2.00 to $2.10. I took opportunities to learn new skills and make myself more valuable to employers. I am 55 now and haven’t earned as low as $32k/year since 1992. If you don’t like where you are on the income scale, do something about it besides whine.

  • vic

    I don’t think that the distribution of wealth is such a complicated matter. Illegal immigration, inflation and what ever other factors people throw into the mix wouldn’t change a thing if they were eliminated. The unequal distribution of wealth has existed in this country since it was founded by a bunch of rich Englishman. If you want to know more about it read about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The U.S. Read about the industrial revolution. Read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair. First they took the means of production from us, and then the means of producing food, and then they decided to educate us. We have to educate ourselves, get the means of production back along with the means to produce our own food. Otherwise they will always have us by the balls.

  • JoeTheSerf

    The late Mr. Carlin explains the process succinctly in this 3 minute video excerpt.


  • Scott

    The study only goes to 2008! Haven’t any of you considered that the correction already happened these past 2 years?!? I’ll guarantee that if this study was done through 2010, the gap would show a narrowing.

  • Dan

    I’ll guarantee you are wrooooooooong.

  • Dan

    can anyone find any stats on the census bureau’s website that more current that 2007?

  • JohnG

    Has anyone considered the effect of entitlement programs which provide rewards for having children? Anyone run across some graphs or stats on birth rates related to income or lack of?

  • Aric

    I am getting pretty sick of people who are at the bottom always complaining and blaming everyone else. If you want to get out of your situation get an eduicaton and stop being lazy. It is not up to society to ensure that everyone lives equally and will achieve vast quantities of wealth in their lifetime. I went to school for 5 years and made less than 10K a year during that period and was perfectly fine with it since I knew I was working towards something better. Now that day has finally come and I can finally rely on me to change my life and not wait around for it to be changed for me.

  • art costan

    I don’t look for any special favors for myself or my small business. I think that our capitalist system is a great system but it now has some gross inequities that need to be addressed. If I make the choice to not participate in the great consumption/money contest that is our economy, I shouldn’t be penalized with the level of taxes that I have to pay. Let those who make the money and consume pay the freight. The U.S. tax code is 16,000 pages long according to several commentators. That length provides endless dodges and shelters for the rich. There should be enough of a disparity between minimum wage and welfare that people will be encouraged to seek work and other issues in entitlements should be addressed. However, our Judeo-Christian grounding should be on prominent display when dealing with these issues that effect the struggling and disadvantaged in our society.

  • Duh

    Duh… There seem to be a lot (maybe the top 10%) of people who think the income gap is a myth … kinda like global warming … Even though more evidence and people point out the problem is real, no matter what, they will do whatever it takes to deny and lie and come up with lame justification for the contrary. Buncha bull s*&t if you ask me.

  • W

    To V,

    Fuck you V.

    Obviously you are a total idiot or you would not have said “Fuck you Macro.”

    Typical of some fo the left wingers, when they can’t win bu logic they resort t this type of language

  • larry

    it is very disappointing to see a cross view of americans missing the point, unless you are in the top 1/10th of 1% of earners or generationally wealthy the likelihood of your financial situation improving over your parents is lesseneing. “like for like of course” if your parents were doctors and you work at burger king.. the expectation is obvious, but second generation mechanics- roofers – tradesmen – manufacturing etc. are making % wise much much less $$$ than their parents did. what’s worse is the workweek and productivity has increased. in other words.. dad didn’t work as hard for more money that could buy more stuff and had a pension as well as health care. My generation has to work harder for less. meanwhile the very top gets a bigger portion of the pie.

  • i’m completely convinced now that those on the right are capable of staring hard facts in the face and opt for their own ayn rand fantasy narrative instead. watching our institutions crash down around us just wasn’t enough. watching jobs evaporate and go overseas wasn’t enough. record corporate profits in the midst of massive job loss isn’t enough. there’s something seriously wrong with a mentality, when something as simple and obvious as this article doesn’t take hold. a steady diet of the trickle-down scam isn’t the culprit, i’m afraid. instead i believe there’s something else fundamentally wrong with people who will ride a doomed idea into the ground.

  • tom

    income disparity will continue to widen as long people watch fox and vote republican

  • alex

    I don’t agree with everything listed above, but I have a question for Austin: “ridiculous levels of inflation and the bullet-train-fast devaluation of the dollar” .

    Well, we have had financial easing and a decreased purchasing power, but I would point out that our currency has been more stable and kept its value over many others. Also, inflation was and is at its lowest rate in decades.

    What wool is it you are talking about??? Perhaps it is between your ears?

  • Peter

    The communists lost the cold war. Remember? Since then unfettered globalised capitalism has forced a lot of ordinary people into poverty, while making a few people very rich. It’s not just happening in the USA, it’s here in Australia too, where social inequities and poverty wages have increased dramatically in the last few decades. Extreme capitalism has promoted old class conflicts and failed to value the social capital of a functional community. A more balanced approach to wealth distribution is not such a bad thing. It has served Australia very well in the past and resulted in one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet. Europe, despite its numerous socialist governments, is a far more upwardly mobile place than the USA and doesn’t see the same kind of extreme disparity. But some people would rather eat their own heads than admit that their sacred “Eye of Providence” American capitalism is a social flop. Perhaps Mr Carlin got it right – “The owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American Dream because you’ve gotta be asleep to believe it.” (thanks for the link from JoeTheSerf http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=acLW1vFO-2Q
    It’s great to see some of our US friends aren’t fooled by the ruling rhetoric. Not everyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps like the US myth claims. It’s almost like US society wants to punish people for being poor, when the reality is that poverty is often not the fault of individuals disadvantaged by history and circumstances. Much of the developed world looks quizzically at the USA’s extreme anti-socialist stance because so many people suffer needlessly due to it. The lack of health care and dignity in retirement for the poor are examples of this. But I doubt much will change so long as Wall Street and Big Business can still buy political representation at the top.

  • Paul

    I would hope that the people on this site would recognize that we are all the same for the most part. Ask a conservative what they want for their children and then ask the same question to a liberal. Chances are, those answers will only differ slightly. Taking handouts, for a person with pride, is like swallowing razor blades.Could it be that the media message from both sides of the political aisle is nothing more than a sham? Per the numbers given by daily finance, 20% of the people hold 85% of the wealth. The rich are the minority in this country and always have been. This is not the fault of a politician. This is a misappropriation of power given to corporate America by political parties through governmental policy. No longer is our government working for us. The interest of big business comes first. There are only minimal differences between the presidents from Carter to Obama which proves that the letter in front of a politicians name is nothing more than a symbol to divide the nation through factions. We continue to operate under the guise of neoliberalism while selling our jobs for profits. That is a large part in why our unemployment continues to rise along with out trade deficit. I hear people spouting “You should have gone to school if you wanted to succeed.” The average IQ in the country is 100. Not everyone is cut out for white collar work. Blue collar jobs are acceptable to most of the middle class. All that anyone is asking is for fair wages and affordable benefits. I do not hate the rich. I love our country’s innovators and believe that small business is our backbone. I believe in less government and fiscal responsibility. But most importantly, I believe in the American people as one country under God (whichever god the constitution gives you the right to worship). We are all citizens and we are our brother’s keeper. Are you willing to unite to restore our country to the level of greatness we all deserve?

  • Pat

    Marx didn’t have the answer to social inequality nor did most of the socialists or capitalists from whom traditional theories have been drawn. Democracy certainly has fallen flat on economic equality, pandering pipe dreams for more than 150 years. It was well recognized that the hiercharies of elites in Britain didn’t have the answer, nor the pre-civil war industrialists and farmers.

    One would think that Americans, if anyone could, might have stumbled across the theory that helps to create and maintain relative economic equality, yet that term remains as elusive today, as it has ever been since humans discovered they could organize and create a government of sorts. It didn’t work for Greeks or Romans, not for the churches, nor for the Pilgrims.

    Such a simple concept but so very difficult to implement, and apparently, even harder to visualize.