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.
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."
But in light of the United States' large and long-standing economic disparities along certain racial and ethnic lines, Currier says that "any increase among people of color" among the richest Americans "is extremely powerful and speaks volumes about how optimistic we should be about the possibility of upward mobility."
They Have Regained Lost Income
In 2006, 50.5 percent of annual income went to the top 20 percent of households, the highest since the Census began keeping records in 1967. That figure dropped to 49.7 percent in 2007 but has since then rebounded to 50.3 percent in 2009 and 50.2 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the income share going to the bottom three quintiles decreased.
Lower Incomes, but Higher by Comparison
The U.S. median income has dropped significantly as a result of the economic crisis, from $52,823 in 2007 to $49,445 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That decline occurred across the board, from the poorest to the richest Americans. But the gap between the richest and the poorest still continued to grow over that period, as it has relatively steadily for decades. The ratio of the 90th percentile income to the 10th percentile income grew by 4.4 percent from 2007 to 2010. Echoes of this increase in inequality can be seen in the retail industry. High-end brands like Tiffany have seen strong sales, as have chains that are focused on providing low prices, like Dollar General.
Becoming More Anxious
According to Gallup, upper-income Americans are now as shaken by the rough economy as the rest of the nation. The polling firm's latest numbers show that, in August, 54 percent of Americans with annual incomes of $90,000 or more believed economic conditions to be "poor." That month, 54 percent of middle- and low-income Americans likewise characterized the economy as "poor." This is the first time since January 2008, right at the start of the recession, that upper-income Americans are as worried as their lower-income peers. Jeff Ladoceur, director of SEI private wealth management, says that the fear is directed toward future generations. His clients, whose net worths run into the tens of millions of dollars, are at the extreme upper end of the wealth spectrum, but they still feel afraid for their children's futures because of an economic environment that has grown so uncertain. "There's this kind of concern that's very much, politics aside, concern of the environment that feels a lot more oppressive or difficult to navigate," says Ladoceur, causing the wealthy to question how their children will fare in such uncharted territory: "Is it the social economic environment that I grew up in? Or at the very least, what is it going to look like?" he asks.