When you read all those?stories about the 1%—or even the top 5% or 10%—it may raise the question: How much money do you need to pull in to be in one of those groups? You'll need at least six figures to count yourself among the nation's top earners.
- You’ll need to pull in at least six figures to be a top earner.
- Historically, the wealthiest have grown richer much faster than the rest of the population.
- Income disparity is highlighted among the top and lowest earners in terms of how much the distribution of wages has changed since 1979.
Annual Wages of Top Earners
The data from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that in 2021 annual wages for the top 1% reached $819,324, which was up 9.4% compared to 2020. How much do you need to earn to be in the top 0.1%? A hefty $3,312,693, which is 18.5% more than that group earned a year before. Wages for the bottom 90% dropped by 0.2% over the same period, with an average income of $36,571.
How to Make the Top 1% List
According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average annual wage of the top 1% was $819,324 as of 2021 (latest information available).
Historically, the rich have become richer faster than the rest of the population. EPI research has found that from 1979 to 2021, the top 1% saw their wages grow by 206.3% and the top 0.1% by more than twice as much?—465.1%. Wages for the bottom 90% only grew 28.7% in the same time period.
|2021 Average Annual Wages|
|Top 0.1% of Earners||$3,312,693|
|Top 1% of Earners||$819,324|
|Top 5% of Earners||$335,891|
|Top 10% of Earners||$167,639|
The latest figures were drawn from Social Security Administration data, allowing EPI researchers to estimate wage trends in more precise segments and to measure trends.
The study is about wages, not income as a whole?; it does not include investment income, for example, which is not part of Social Security data.
Impact of the Financial Crisis
During the financial crisis from 2007 to 2009, wages fell furthest among the top 0.1% and 1% of earners. From 2007 to 2020, from the start of the Great Recession, wages grew 9% for the top 1%, 9.9% for the bottom 90%, and 13.4% for the top 5%.
In approximately the decade after the recovery from the Great Recession (2009-2020), the bottom 90% saw annual wage growth of just 10.6%, compared to the top 1.0% and top 0.1%, which experienced 29.2% and 43.2% growth, respectively.
Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Even as the coronavirus pandemic wiped out jobs and created hardship for many Americans, the well-off continued to amass wealth. The richest 1% of American households added about $8.9 trillion in wealth from the beginning of the pandemic in Q1 2020 to the end of Dec. 2021. From the start of the pandemic to Q1 2023, the top 1% added $7.67 trillion in wealth.
Federal Reserve data shows that as of Q1 2023, the top 1% of earners now hold 26.3% of the nation's wealth, a larger share than the 7.2% held by the middle 40% to 60% of U.S. households (often used to define the middle class by economists).
Income disparity is the most dramatic when you look at how the distribution of wages has changed since 1979. As the EPI reports: "The top 1% earned 14.6% of all wages in 2021—twice as high as their 7.3% share in 1979. The bottom 90% received just 58.6% of all wages in 2021, the lowest share on record, and far lower than their 69.8% share in 1979."
Are the Rich Getting Richer?
Yes. Between 1979 and 2021, the wages of the top 1% grew by 206.3%, while the rate of growth for those in the top 0.1% was more than twice as high: 465.1%. Compare that to the 28.7% growth for those in the bottom 90% during the same period.
How Much Would You Have to Make to Be in the Top 0.1%?
Your annual wage would have to be approximately $3.3 million to be in the top 0.1% of earners as of 2021.
How Many Billionaires Are There?
According to the 2023 Forbes annual wealthiest list, the number of billionaires in the world is 2,640. This is a decrease from 2,668 in 2022. The U.S. has more billionaires than any other country: 735. China, including Hong Kong and Macao, is close behind with 562.
The Bottom Line
To be a top earner in the U.S., you’ll need to make at least six figures. The wealthiest have grown richer much faster than the rest of the population since 1979. Income disparity stands out in particular among the highest and lowest earners in regards to how the distribution of wages has changed since then.
Economic Policy Institute. “Inequality in Annual Earnings Worsens in 2021."
Social Security Administration. "National Average Wage Index."
Economic Policy Institute. “Wage Inequality Continued to Increase in 2020."
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Wealth by Wealth Percentile Group.”
Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. “Wealth by Income Percentile.”
Forbes. “Forbes World’s Billionaires List.”