Top 1 Percent Receive Record High Share of Total U.S. Income

The United States has experienced increasing economic inequality since the late 1970s. New data released this week confirm that the Great Recession was only a blip on the road toward growing income inequality. Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty updated their now-famous data on cash, market-based income, allowing one to track trends in inequality in the United States between 1913 through 2012.

As illustrated in the graph below, the share of income going to the top 1 percent has surpassed its 2007 peak of 18.3 percent and is now 19.3 percent—the highest share since 1928.

At the same time, the Piketty and Saez data show that the Great Recession has battered incomes for the bottom 90 percent so badly that they are now back to the same levels that prevailed in 1966.

Importantly, the Piketty and Saez data show clearly that it hasn’t always been this way.  In the decades following 1928, income inequality declined rapidly.  Between 1948 and 1979, the top 1 percent claimed less than 10 percent of total income, on average, and income growth was essentially shared proportionately.

Since 1979, the top 1 percent’s take has soared. We have argued that this shouldn’t be a huge shock – since then policies have increasingly been hijacked by those with the most economic power to tilt a larger share of economic rewards their way. Erecting barriers to workers wanting to form unions, allowing the minimum wage to get battered by inflation for decades at a time, dismantling regulations that kept the financial sector in check, writing the rules governing globalization to insure that rank-and-file workers were exposed to global competition but owners of capital were largely shielded from it, and shifting macroeconomic priorities away from ensuring very low unemployment and towards guaranteeing very low inflation all predictably robbed bargaining power from low and moderate wage workers.

Further, while almost nobody would defend these policies on the grounds that they would increase equality, they have been defended on the grounds that they are good for overall economic growth. So, the claim was that while the share of income claimed by the bottom 90 percent might shrink, their actual incomes would grow faster because of the growth bonanza unleashed by these policy changes. But average growth slowed in the last few decades, even as inequality widened. Further, economic literature (surveyed in a recent paper here) finds that there is no real case behind the claim that increasing the share of the top 1 percent helps overall growth at all. So, if the top 1 percent increases their share and overall growth is not boosted by this shift, this simply means there is less money left for everyone else. This is a really important point—those worried about inequality do not have to prove that it has hurt overall economic growth. All we have to show is that it has not demonstrably helped it. As long as this is the case, rising inequality means less money for low and moderate income households, period.

How much less money? Check out this calculator. For more on the package of policies that have led to this rise in inequality, check out


  • benleet

    I’ve a question about the increase in household net worth. The increase is phenomenal, but it does not seem to be captured in the Saez and Picketty research data which is an income report. The Flow of Funds report from the Federal Reserve, July 2013, reports that household net worth has increased since 2008 from $57 trillion to $74 trillion, up $17.6 trillion, a 30% increase, which is on average $146,000 per household. But, unfortunately, probably most households have less savings, maybe 95% of households. I wonder how the national annual GDP of around $15 trillion over a five year period, about $75 trillion in all, can create $17 trillion in additional savings? Is the nation saving about 20% of GDP each year? Help me with this math. Is this “phantom wealth”, a phrase from David Korten, and the result of a spiraling asset bubble that is not reported income? And I looked just now at Christian Weller’s Economic Snapshot, he says “Household debt equaled 108.5 percent of after-tax income in June 2012, down from a peak of 129.3 percent in September 2007.” This is aggregate debt compared to aggregate income, I think. It shows that the increase in household assets, the $17.6 trillion increase, did not do much to relieve the excessive debt burden of most households.

  • Tony Warren

    So what?

  • marinegrl

    I like this – my husband and I retired from the same job. While working, he decided to pursue his degree. I did not. He got promoted, I got promoted, just not at the same pay scale he did. Now that we’re retired, his pension is larger then mine. With cost of living increases, his pay goes up. That’s not fair? What’s not fair is working your tail off to have something, while everyone is at the beach or off on the weekends, we’re working, holidays, birthdays, it doesn’t matter. Now, when we finally have something to show for all our efforts, we’re being told that we must share with others that choose not to put the extra time or effort in. If anyone thinks the top 1% didn’t have to do anything to get where they are, they’re delusional. Sure people inherit wealth but I don’t want what they have, I want what I earned and I don’t want someone who didn’t earn it taking it from me. Also, we help A LOT of people and I mean people that no one else will give them the time of day. That day is going to end soon because I have found most just want a handout. A young man asked us to help pay his electric bill. They have four kids in the house and three adults, Not one of the adults has a job; two have been unemployed for a couple years. And it’s not that there aren’t jobs, I have told them but they won’t apply. They’re minimum wage jobs, but if all three worked a minimum wage job that would be good money. So what do you think will happen when what is earned is spread to everyone else? People won’t work as hard, those that do have money won’t share as much and they’ll be less for everyone.