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Who, Me? A One Percenter?

Thursday, 26 Jul 2012 | 1:22 PM ET
Andreas Pollok | Getty Images

No one wants to be a One Percenter anymore. Including the One Percent.

A new study shows that the vast majority of people earning more than $250,000 a year say they are not in the One Percent. Many of them actually are One Percenters, since the cut-off for the One Percent is $343,000 a year in income.

In the latest Mendelsohn Affluent Barometer, most of the $250,000-plus earners say they’re only in the top 20 percent. In fact, as a group, they’re in the top 3 percent and higher.

It turns out, One Percenters (like many Americans) have a vastly overinflated perception of the American income system and tend to rank themselves much lower than their actual position. They believe there are plenty of Americans who make far more than they do, even though that’s not the case.

Americans who make $250,000 (Mendelsohn calls them “ultra-affluents”) think that it takes at least $1.67 million in annual income to make it into the top one percent of income. That’s nearly five times the actual cutoff point.

They also think Americans need $14 million in assets to be in the top one percent of wealth. Actually, you only need around $8 million.

This “One-Percenter denial” doesn’t just apply to financial measurements. It also applies to psychology and cultural attitudes. More than half of the ultra-affluents believe that the one percent is “out of touch” and “has too much power and influence.” Many of the One Percenters, in other words, identify more with the 99 percent.

Still, their views aren’t all negative. The majority of ultra-affluents also say that the One Percent is “unfairly criticized” and are doing their share in taxes and philanthropy.

It’s unclear what “unfairly criticized” really means, since this group also says the One Percent is out of touch and too powerful. It could mean that other criticisms of the One Percent, about how they made their money, for instance, or their contributions to the economy, are unfair.

Yet this poll is in keeping with previous research that finds than many of the One Percent don’t see themselves as One Percenters – either culturally or financially. The rich will almost always say they’re not rich, either because they are thinking of even richer friends or highly public billionaires, or because they came from middle-class roots and don’t see themselves as blue-bloods.

A survey last year from HNW Inc. found that half of One Percenters don't think they're in the top 1 percent. More than two thirds of them think the wealth gap between the One Percent and the rest is a problem. Still, only a third believed the One Percent should be taxed more.

The lesson here is that the One Percenters are conflicted about their identities and place in our society. And most of us are richer than we think. To use the Michael Jackson line, if the one percenters want change or "more fairness," they might want to start with “the man in the mirror.”

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
Follow Robert Frank on Twitter:
@robtfrank

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  • A reporter and editor, Robert Frank is a leading authority on the American wealthy for CNBC.