The financial wall separating the nation's wealthiest 1 percent from the rest of us is high, but it isn't insurmountable. A recent study shows that the average American has a 1 in 9 chance of joining that elite club.
The tricky part? Staying there.
About 11 percent of U.S. workers will move into the top 1 percent of income earners for at least a year between age 25 and 60, the study authors say. As of 2012, you had to have adjusted gross income of $434,682 per year to land in the top 1 percent.
That seems to push against, if not totally refute, the idea that the top 1 percent are a walled-off elite with lives that the remaining 99 percent will never get to experience.
The research shows that there is plenty of income mobility in America -- at the top rungs on the ladder. Other studies have shown limited income mobility at lower wealth levels. For example, for fathers in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution, 42 percent of their sons will remain at those low levels. Translation: In the U.S., more than many other countries, if you're born into poverty you'll likely stay there.
But the new paper, by professors Tom Hirschl of Cornell University and Mark Rank of Washington University, showed much more fluid movement at the higher end of the income spectrum. The walls are more porous around the top 1 percent and especially around the top 5 and 10 percent.
Here's what the researchers found for Americans by age 60:
- 70 percent will spend at least a year in the top 20 percent of earners
- 53 percent will spend at least a year in the top 10 percent
- 36 percent will spend at least a year in the top 5 percent
- 11 percent will spend at least a year in the top 1 percent
It's one thing just to make it into the ranks of these wealthy groups. It's much more difficult to stay there for any considerable length of time.
The researchers showed that of those who make it to the top 1 percent, only 1.6 percent will stay there for at least five consecutive years, and only 0.6 percent will stay there for at least a decade.
Americans' staying power gets better as you go down the chain, but even then it's clear the good times don't last for many. Even at the top 20 percent income level, the odds of staying there for 10 or more consecutive years is just one in five. In other words, keep your gold-plated suitcases handy because there's a good chance you'll be packing up for the lower wealth levels soon enough.
"Income fluidity is a double-edged sword," the authors write, "creating opportunity for many, along with insecurity that this opportunity may end sooner than hoped for."
The researchers also looked at what types of Americans are likely to float around these upper levels of income. In what will be a surprise to absolutely no one, Americans that reached these heights are likely to be:
- Educated for more than 12 years
- Lacking any work disability
The strongest predictors of top-level wealth are education, marriage and race, the researchers found. The fact that race is such a dominant factor "suggests persisting patterns of social inequality related to past and present discrimination and exclusion," they wrote. "Thus it would be misguided to presume that top-level income attainment is solely a function of hard work, diligence, and equality of opportunity. "
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