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Who makes the really big bucks in America?

Many people are aware of the annual Forbes listing of the 400 wealthiest people in America  http://www.forbes.com/forbes-400/. The list is based on investigations and estimates of the net worth of individuals. It’s obviously extremely selective; in 2013 a person had to be worth a total of at least 1.3 billion to make the list. Although the Forbes list is fascinating, determining key characteristics of the much larger group who are also highly successful economically but not at the very top in wealth should provide a good picture of these individuals and how they differ from the rest of us. The results can also illuminate the more likely paths to economic success for those who aspire to this goal. We have found no studies that did this. Accordingly, we take advantage of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) data to select those individuals who reported annual incomes of at least $400,000. We call these “high-income Americans”. Although most of their income is derived from work, investment income is also included. Because annual fluctuations in numbers and characteristics of this group should not be significant, we utilize the aggregated ACS data for the years 2007 through 2011 to create a large sample of about five percent of employed Americans. Our analysis shows an estimated 711,472 persons with annual incomes of at least $400,000. Although a seemingly large number, it represents only the top third of one percent of employed Americans ages 16 and older with income. This is the group that we describe and, in many cases, compare with other employed Americans in terms of ethnicity, gender, educational attainment, key employment characteristics, and state of residence. The patterns we present are the result of complex causes that are difficult if not impossible to disentangle.

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