Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States (Update with 2007 estimates)



The recent dramatic rise in income inequality in the United States is well documented. But we know less about which groups are winners and which are losers, or how this may have changed over time. Is most of the income growth being captured by an extremely small income elite? Or is a broader upper middle class profiting? And are capitalists or salaried managers and professionals the main winners? I explore these questions with a uniquely long-term historical view that allows me to place current developments in deeper context than is typically the case.

Efforts at analyzing long-term trends are often hampered by a lack of good data. In the United States, and most other countries, household income surveys virtually did not exist prior to 1960. The only data source consistently available on a long-run basis is tax data. The U.S. government has published detailed statistics on income reported for tax purposes since 1913, when the modern federal income tax started. These statistics report the number of taxpayers and their total income and tax liability for a large number of income brackets. Combining these data with population census data and aggregate income sources, one can estimate the share of total personal income accruing to various upper-income groups, such as the top 10 percent or top 1 percent.

We define income as the sum of all income components reported on tax returns (wages and salaries, pensions received, profits from businesses capital income such as dividends, interest, or rents, and realized capital gains) before individual income taxes. We exclude government transfers such as Social Security retirement benefits or unemployment compensation benefits from our income definition. Therefore, our income measure is defined as market income before individual income taxes.