Many Make It to the One Percent, But Few Stay Long

A new study finds that one in nine Americans has been in the top one percent income bracket at some point—but it's still mostly educated white men.
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Perennial rich white man Donald Trump. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Perennial rich white man Donald Trump. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The Occupy movement brought us the term "one percent," conceptualized as a small cadre of business elites who wield most of the money and power, and who remain largely unchanged over time. As much as that "one percent" tag line is a handy rhetorical device, it's still unclear who the top earners are or whether they're the same people year to year. Turns out, there's quite a lot of turnover up in the 99th percentile—only about one in 200 will stay at the top for a decade or more, and reaching the top is still more likely for educated white men.

With growing concern about income inequality in the United States—even the Economist seems worried—academic researchers have ramped up their analyses on the people bringing home the most bacon. At the very top, some studies indicate, there's a decent amount of mobility. According to one study, less than a third of taxpayers remained in the top one percent for five consecutive years. Other studies have produced similar results.

Just under 70 percent of those surveyed made it into the top 20th percentile by age 60, "and 11.1 percent will have experienced at least one year within the top first percentile." 

Thomas Hirschl and Mark Rank take a somewhat different approach to studying mobility in the upper echelons of income. Rather than look at who's at the top year to year, they drew on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which (beginning in 1968) surveyed 18,000 U.S. citizens on their household income. From there, the researchers calculated how many of the survey participants spent at least one year in the top 20th, 10th, fifth, and first income percentiles.

Looking at the data, Hirschl and Rank find that just under 70 percent of those surveyed made it into the top 20th percentile by age 60, "and 11.1 percent will have experienced at least one year within the top first percentile," they write in PLoS One. About one percent of the PSID participants reached such heights for a total of 10 years—not necessarily consecutive—or more by the time they were 60. Just half a percent remained in the top one percent of income for at least 10 consecutive years.

"Rather than static groups that experience continual high levels of income attainment, there would appear to be more fluid movement into and out of these income levels," Hirschl and Rank write.

That said, "it would be misguided to presume that top-level income attainment is solely a function of hard work, diligence, and equality of opportunity," Hirschl and Rank write. While the results show substantial mobility in higher income brackets, they also show that race, gender, education, and having a work disability of some kind tend to keep people out of the top 20th, 10th, fifth, and first income percentiles. "A more nuanced interpretation includes the proposition that access to a top-level income is influenced by historic patterns of race and class inequality," they write.

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