Inside Wealth

Salaries for the Wealthy Still Falling

Former U.S. President Bill Clintonspeaks on stage during day two of the Democratic National Convention.
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There are two inequality narratives floating around the presidential election.

The first is that the incomes of the rich have continued to rise in recent years. The second is that soaring salaries for the rich are a consequence of trickle-down, supply-side economics that began with Ronald Reagan's presidency and accelerated under President George W. Bush.

New stats from the Census Bureau, however, tell a different story. They show that salaries for the top five percent of earners rose fastest under the Clinton administration.

Between 1992 and 2000, the income cut-off for the top five percent – the lowest income you could make and qualify for that elite group – rose by 21 percent. That compares with flat incomes for the top five percent under Bush, and a slight decline in the top 5 percent income-cut off under President Barack Obama.

Of course, cut-offs don’t tell us what happened to the total income of all Five Percenters. A select group of big gainers at the top might skew those results. (Read more: One Percent Gives Up Ground – to the Five Percent)

What’s more, the Gini coefficient – a complex formula devised to measure inequality – has escalated under Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, according to Census. (Though there is conflicting data on this).

Still, while no one should feel sorry for the Five Percenters, the decline in cut-off incomes suggest that the real income of the top five percent has fallen by four percent since 2006 and are still below the levels of 1999. Meanwhile, the incomes of the middle 50 percent is down about 2 percent since 1999 and down less than 1.5 percent from pre-crisis 2006.

All of this shows that the real growth in earnings at the top came during the 1990s – not the 2000s. If people are looking for policy reasons for the rising income at the top, they might do better to look at the Clinton years rather than the Bush years. (Read more: $6 Million Gets Into the One Percent at 40, But Not at 60)

In the end, the salaries at the top seem to be more closely correlated to economic growth than tax rates or regulatory policy – though of course, all may play a delayed role.

-By CNBC's Robert Frank
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