What the Recession Has Done to the Rich

They're getting more diverse and increasingly anxious, even as they regain lost income.


December marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the Great Recession. The nation has become a different place during that period: Poverty has worsened, young Americans are being hit hard by unemployment, and government debt has skyrocketed.

For the richest Americans, life has changed as well. For one thing, they currently find themselves at the center of a political fight, with Republicans hurling accusations of "class warfare" at President Obama for his proposed tax hike on Americans making more than $1 million annually—a cause that even multibillionaire Warren Buffett has joined. Of course, "rich" can mean different things to different people, but whatever the measure, assets and earnings are highly concentrated at the top. The top 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of wealth, according to economist Joseph Stiglitz, and in terms of income, the top 1 percent take in almost 25 percent.

[Read about Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's latest report to Congress.]

Here are a few statistical snapshots ofhow the population of the wealthiest and highest-income people in the nation has changed since the recession:

Women Are on the Move

From 2007 to 2010, high-earning women have grown as a population much more rapidly than their male counterparts. Over that time period, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the number of women 16 and over earning $100,000 or more grew by nearly 17 percent, compared with 2.3 percent growth for men. During the preceding three years, from 2004 to 2007, the population of high-earning women had also grown more quickly than men, but not by such a large ratio. During that period, the group of men earning six figures grew by nearly 32 percent, and the cohort of high-earning women grew by nearly 57 percent (it should be noted that the Census only included group quarters, like dormitories and correctional facilities, in the American Community Survey from 2006 onward, which may affect some comparisons between 2004 and 2007 data).Of course, men still dominate high-earners, making up roughly three quarters of Americans making over $100,000. But women are making inroads, and one likely reason for that could be education, says Erin Currier, project manager at the Pew Charitable Trust's Economic Mobility Project. "Post-secondary education is one of the strongest drivers we've found of upward economic mobility," she says, and women have been making great strides in this area for decades. "We do see over the last 20 years or so a strong increase in the number of women, both white and of color, who are attending and completing four-year college programs, especially compared to white men," she says.

Decline in Wealthy Whites

From 2007 to 2010, the population of high-earning Americans has grown more racially and ethnically diverse. The total number of households with annual incomes over $200,000 grew by 1.5 percent during that period, a significant decrease from a nearly 51 percent jump in that same population from 2004 to 2007. White, non-Hispanic Americans were a big factor in that slowed growth. From 2007 to 2010, the share of those households headed by white non-Hispanics remained almost unchanged, posting a decrease of just over 1 percent, compared to growth of 14, 19, and nearly 21 percent among Hispanics, Asians, and blacks, respectively. Of course, this growth is tempered by the fact that households headed by these minority groups still make up small shares of the larger high-income population. Households headed by non-Hispanic whites still make up 82.5 percent of households making $200,000 or more per year. "It's much easier to get a high change when you're dealing with small numbers," points out Dedrick Muhammad, senior director of Economic Programs at the NAACP. While it's good that African-Americans are better represented among high-earning Americans, he says, "the fact that to go up 20 percent means that you're going only up to not even 4 percent of your demographic representation [among all high-earning households] doesn't show radical progress."