A project of the
Institute for Policy Studies

Income Inequality

Download Chart PackIncome inequality refers to the extent to which income is distributed in an uneven manner among a population. In the United States, income inequality, or the gap between the rich and everyone else, has been growing markedly, by every major statistical measure, for some 30 years.

Household and Family Income

Income includes the revenue streams from wages, salaries, interest on a savings account, dividends from shares of stock, rent, and profits from selling something for more than you paid for it.

The median U.S. household income in 2012 totaled $51,017, according to the Census data. Half of American households had income greater than this figure, half less. The Great Recession hit incomes hard across the board. Median household income declined 8.1 percent between 2007 and 2012. Adjusted for inflation, incomes are at their lowest point since 1996.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Historical Income Tables, Table H-5.


Between the end of World War II and the late 1970s, incomes in the United States were becoming more equal. In other words, incomes at the bottom were rising faster than those at the top. Since the late 1970s, this trend has reversed.

Data from tax returns show that the top 1 percent of households received 8.9 percent of all pre-tax income in 1976. In 2012, the top 1 percent share had more than doubled to 22.46 percent.

Source: Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913-1998,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003. Updated to 2008 at


This level of income inequality, research shows, endangers our society, on a variety of fronts.

In 2007, the top 1 percent share of national income peaked at 23.5 percent. The only other year since 1913 that the wealthy had claimed such a large share of national income: 1928, when the top 1 percent share was 23.9 percent. The following year, the stock market crashed, and the Great Depression began. After peaking again in 2007, the U.S. stock market crashed in 2008, leading to what some have called the “Great Recession.” During this period (from 2007 to 2009), the share of after tax income going to the top 1 percent decreased by 36 percent. However, their share rebounded by 15 percent in 2010, foreshadowing a continued upward trend throughout the economic recovery.


Source: Congressional Budget Office, Average Federal Taxes by Income Group, “Average After-Tax Household Income,” June, 2010.


Source: Congressional Budget Office, “The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2010.”


Between 1979 and 2012, the top 5 percent of American families saw their real incomes increase 74.9 percent, according to Census data. Over the same period, the lowest-income fifth saw a decrease in real income of 12.1 percent. This sharply contrasts with the 1947-79 period, when all income groups saw similar income gains, with the lowest income group actually seeing the largest gains.


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Historical Income Tables: Families, Table F-3 (for income changes) and Table F-1 (for income ranges in 2009 dollars).


After adjusting for inflation, CEO pay in 2009 more than doubled the CEO pay average for the decade of the 1990s, more than quadrupled the CEO pay average for the 1980s, and ran approximately eight times the CEO average for all the decades of the mid-20th century. (Institute for Policy Studies, Executive Excess 2010)

In 2009, CEOs of major U.S. corporations averaged 263 times the average compensation of American workers. (Institute for Policy Studies, Executive Excess 2010)

CEOs who cut jobs the most cashed in the greatest. In 2009, the CEOs who slashed their payrolls the deepest took home 42 percent more compensation than the year’s chief executive pay average for S&P 500 companies. (Institute for Policy Studies, Executive Excess 2010)


Source: Institute for Policy Studies, Executive Excess 2010, p. 5.



After rising steadily during the three decades following World War II, wages have stagnated since the early 1970s. Between 1947 and 1972, the average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, rose 76 percent. Since 1972, by contrast, the average hourly wage has risen only 9 percent.


Source: Economic Policy Institute, “Wages and Compensation Stagnating,” 2011, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Figures are for production and non-supervisory workers.