Am I Rich? Musing about Income and Wealth Differences across Economic Class Lines

How much money does it take to be part of the upper class? The lower class? These types of questions are troublesome. There are undeniably wealthy people who think that they are middle class, and some patently poor people who self-identify as part of the middle class. Drawing economic class lines is complicated.

Still, it is interesting to draw hypothetical lines. The exercise gives us some indication of what different classes’ personal finances might look like, and where someone seems likely to lie on the country’s economic hierarchy.

According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center,1 about 32% of US society self-identifies with the lower or lower-middle class. Another 49% identify with the middle class proper. A further 15% identify with the upper-middle class, and 2% with the upper-class. Without data on these respondents’ personal finances, we cannot create a profile of how households’ finances differ across (self-identified) economic classes.

Drawing Class Lines with Data

Perhaps another solution is to ask how household finances differ across classes if people were to correctly identify their own economic class. For example, if the 2% of respondents were correct that they were at or above the 98th percentile of income or wealth, then how much would they earn or possess? We can answer this question using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances2. The table gives the implied income and net worth ranges:

Class Income Range Net Worth Range
Lower Class
(min to 7th pctl.)
below $11,565 below -$9,018
Lower-Middle Class
(7th to 32nd pctl.)
$11,566 – $30,435 -$9,019 – $18,210
Middle Class
(32nd to 82nd pctl.)
$30,436 – $109,914 $18,211 – $483,420
Upper-Middle Class
(82nd to 98th pctl.)
$109,915 – $417,175 $483,421 – $4.4 million
Upper Class
(above 98th pctl.)
above $417,176 above $4.4 million

I would imagine that the income figures make sense to readers, but not the wealth figures. In general, people seem to draw economic class lines based on income, and they often fail to appreciate how wealth varies and the impact of wealth on a household’s overall economic situation. Conretely speaking, the middle class has wide ranges in wealth, which sit between the rough equivalent of a year’s worth of poverty line income and nearly a half million dollars.

An alternative, ad hoc division might look like this. The typology captures how a very large proportion of society has next to no wealth. While 7% of society’s households are “poor” in income terms, nearly a quarter of them are “wealth” poor. The middle 50% has some wealth, but not enough to cover a few years at the poverty line. Like income, wealth is concentrated in the top quarter, and most of this is concentrated in the higher ranks of this top quartile:

Wealth Class Net Worth Range
Bottom 25%
(min to 25th pctl.)
below $8,784
Middle 50%
(25th and 75th pctl.)
$8,785 – $81,456
Upper-Middle
(75th to 90th pctl.)
$81,457 – $315,712
Lower Top 10%
(90th to 95th pctl.)
$315,713 – $943,656
Top 5%
(95th to 99th pctl.)
$943,657 – $1.9 million
Top 1%
(99th to 99.9th pctl.)
$1.9 million – $7.9 million
Top 0.1%
(above 99.9th pctl.)
above $7.9 million

 


  1. Rich Morin and Seth Motel (2012) “A Third of Americans Now Say They Are in the Lower Classes” Research report from Pew Research Center. http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/09/10/a-third-of-americans-now-say-they-are-in-the-lower-classes/
  2. Federal Reserve Board (2014) Survey of Consumer Finances Database at http://www.federalreserve.gov/econresdata/scf/scfindex.htm. Data were analyzed in R using scripts that were adapted from prior work of Anthony Damico, at http://www.asdfree.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *