When you read all those stories about the 1%—or even the top 5% or 10%—how much money do you need to pull in to be in one of those groups? You'll need at least six figures to count yourself among the nation's top earners, according to data published by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in December 2019.

Key Takeaways

  • You’ll need to pull in at least six figures to be a top earner.
  • Historically, the wealthiest have grown richer much faster than the rest of the population.
  • Income disparity is highlighted among the top and lowest earners in terms of how much the distribution of wages has changed since 1979.

Annual Wages of Top Earners

The latest data from the EPI show that in 2018 annual wages for the top 1% reached $737,697, up just 0.2% compared to 2017. How much do you need to earn to be in the top 0.1%? A hefty $2,808,104, which is less than the $2,824,069 you would have needed to earn in 2017. Wages for the bottom 90% rose more (1.4%) than the wealthiest, but average annual wages were dramatically less at $37,574.

2018 Annual Wages
Group Wages
Top 0.1% of Earners $2,808,104
Top 1% of Earners $737,697
Top 5% of Earners $309,348
Top 10% of Earners $158,002

Despite the lack of growth in 2018, historically the rich have become richer faster than the rest of the population. Since 1979, the top 1% saw their wages grow by 157.8% and the top 0.1% by more than twice as much⁠—340.7%. Wages for the bottom 90% only grew 23.9% in the same time period.

The latest figures were drawn from Social Security Administration data, allowing EPI researchers to estimate wage trends in more precise segments and to measure trends.

The study is about wages, not an income as a whole⁠—it does not include investment income, for example, which is not part of Social Security data.

Impact of the Financial Crisis

During the financial crisis from 2007 to 2009, wages fell furthest among the top 0.1% and 1% of earners. In 2018, the top 0.1% had still not yet bounced back to what they earned in 2007.

Among the top 5% of earners, wages grew 5.5% since 2007, the year before the Great Recession. Those in the top 10% saw 9.6% growth.

In the years since the Great Recession, the bottom 90% saw annual wage growth of just 6.8%, compared to the top 0.1% which experienced 19.2% growth.

Income Disparity

Income disparity is the most dramatic when you look at how the distribution of wages has changed since 1979. As the EPI reports: "The bottom 90% earned 69.8% of all earnings in 1979 but only 61% in 2018. In contrast the top 1% increased its share of earnings from 7.3% in 1979 to 13.3% in 2018, a near-doubling." The EPI also points out that the top 0.1% more than tripled their share of earnings to 5.1% in 2018 from 1.6% in 1979.

Wages of All Earners

If you are not among the top earners and would like to see where you fit in, here are the full details from the EPI study:

The Bottom Line

To be a top earner in the U.S., you’ll need to make at least six figures. The wealthiest have grown richer much faster then the rest of the population since 1979. Income disparity stands out in particular among the highest and lowest earners in regards to how the distribution of wages has changed since then.