Just Who are the Rich?
January 14, 2003
Although many Democrats accuse Republicans of serving the interests of "the rich," there is little agreement on what constitutes a wealthy household.
Some debaters base their definition on salaries -- and claim that any household making $100,000 a year is rich. Others ignore salaries and base their definition on household assets. Complicating the effort to define personal wealth is the question of economic geography -- with $1 million going much further in some areas of the country than in others.
What can't be denied is that the ranks of the well-off have multiplied in recent years.
- The fortunes of many families that were already rich have soared since 1980 -- as did the ranks of the newly wealthy, with the ranks of households making at least $1 million almost doubling to 4.8 million from the early 1980s to the late 1990s, even after accounting for inflation.
- Almost three million of the 130 million U.S. families filing tax returns in 2001 reported at least $200,000 of income -- up from 1.3 million in 1995.
- Wealth in the United States remains concentrated in metropolitan and coastal areas -- but some rural enclaves and growing wealth in the Rocky Mountain states have somewhat altered that picture.
- Some 13 percent of Americans consider themselves either rich or upper income -- while 59 percent say they are in the middle-income crowd, and 27 percent identify themselves as lower income or poor.
It took an income of only $83,500 in 2001 to place an American in the top-fifth, or quintile, of earners.
Source: David Leonhardt, "Defining the Rich in the World's Wealthiest Nation," New York Times, January 12, 2003.
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