Income Inequality: Where Do You Fall?

BY Paul Solman  March 24, 2011 at 5:10 PM EST

Updated March 25, 2011 at 1:33 p.m. with a fixed link to the Slate interactive.

Income inequality has changed over time: today the richest 1 percent of Americans hold about 24 percent of U.S. wealth. But almost a century ago in 1915, that same top percent had 18 percent of the nation’s wealth, according to Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez in his report “Striking it Richer.” (Saez won the discipline’s prestigious John Bates Clark medal in 2009.)

Making Sense

The amount of wealth that the richest 1 percent controls has ebbed and flowed throughout the years, with peaks just prior to the Great Depression and deep dips during the 1970s. From 1940 through 1973, the share of wealth controlled by the richest 1 percent of Americans shrank. Economists Claudia Goldin and Robert Margo called this period the “Great Compression” as incomes became increasingly equal. But from 1979 through today, those in the top 1 percent have increased their share, causing Nobel laureate Paul Krugman to dub the era the “Great Divergence.”

On the broadcast Thursday, we talk with Americans struggling — vainly, in their view — to keep pace. Many feel the middle class is disintegrating, as are their prospects. Cookie Sheers, for example, who works at a non-profit:

“There are days that I walk to work because I couldn’t afford $1.25 to get on the bus,” said Sheers, a single mother of three who makes $34,000 a year. “There are days that I sacrifice a meal because I want to make sure my children eat.”

For one graphic take on the trends, here’s Slate’s nine-part series on income inequality and a “visual guide” infographic slide show from last September by Catherine Mulbrandon of visualizingeconomics.com.

And for a quick snapshot of where you stand compared to your fellow Americans, Slate has built an interactive. Scroll down about a third of the page until you reach the “Where do I stand?” box. Then enter your zip code and yearly income, and the widget tells you how you compare to others in your neighborhood, state and the country. (Warning: for some zip codes, it may only report your relative standing in the country as a whole.)

A request: estimate where you think you stand before entering your income. Top 20 percent? Top 30 percent? Please let us know in a comment below if you under- or over-estimated your place in the distribution.

With additional contributions by Diane Lincoln-Estes and Elizabeth Shell.

This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions _Follow Paul on Twitter._