NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

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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