It's not just the wealthiest 1 percent.
Fully 20 percent of U.S. adults become rich for parts of their lives, wielding outsize influence on America's economy and politics. This little-known group may pose the biggest barrier to reducing the nation's income inequality.
The growing numbers of the U.S. poor have been well documented, but survey data provided to The Associated Press detail the flip side of the record income gap—the rise of the "new rich."
Made up largely of older professionals, working married couples and more educated singles, the new rich are those with household income of $250,000 or more at some point during their working lives. That puts them, if sometimes temporarily, in the top 2 percent of earners.
(Read more: Minimumwage: Voters decide on pay hikes)
Even outside periods of unusual wealth, members of this group generally hover in the $100,000-plus income range, keeping them in the top 20 percent of earners.
Companies increasingly are marketing to this rising demographic, fueling a surge of "mass luxury" products and services from premium Starbucks coffee and organic groceries to concierge medicine and VIP lanes at airports. Political parties are taking a renewed look at the up-for-grabs group, once solidly Republican.
They're not the traditional rich.
In a country where poverty is at a record high, today's new rich are notable for their sense of economic fragility. They've reached the top 2 percent, only to fall below it, in many cases. That makes them much more fiscally conservative than other Americans, polling suggests, and less likely to support public programs, such as food stamps or early public education, to help the disadvantaged.
Last week, President Barack Obama asserted that growing inequality is "the defining challenge of our time," signaling that it will be a major theme for Democrats in next year's elections.
New research suggests that affluent Americans are more numerous than government data depict, encompassing 21 percent of working-age adults for at least a year by the time they turn 60. That proportion has more than doubled since 1979.
(Read more: $15 minimumwage means layoffs: White Castle exec)
At the same time, an increasing polarization of low-wage work and high-skill jobs has left middle-income careers depleted.
"For many in this group, the American dream is not dead. They have reached affluence for parts of their lives and see it as very attainable, even if the dream has become more elusive for everyone else," says Mark Rank, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who calculated numbers on the affluent for a forthcoming book, "Chasing the American Dream," to be published by the Oxford University Press.
As the fastest-growing group based on take-home pay, the new rich tend to enjoy better schools, employment and gated communities, making it easier to pass on their privilege to their children.
Their success has implications for politics and policy.
The group is more liberal than lower-income groups on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, according to an analysis of General Social Survey data by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. But when it comes to money, their views aren't so open. They're wary of any government role in closing the income gap.
In Gallup polling in October, 60 percent of people making $90,000 or more said average Americans already had "plenty of opportunity" to get ahead. Among those making less than $48,000, the share was 48 percent.
"In this country, you don't get anywhere without working hard," said James Lott, 28, a pharmacist in Renton, Wash., who adds to his six-figure salary by day-trading stocks. The son of Nigerian immigrants, Lott says he was able to get ahead by earning an advanced pharmacy degree. He makes nearly $200,000 a year.
After growing up on food stamps, Lott now splurges occasionally on nicer restaurants, Hugo Boss shoes, and extended vacations to New Orleans, Atlanta, and parts of Latin America. He believes government should play a role in helping the disadvantaged. But he says the poor should be encouraged to support themselves, explaining that his single mother rose out of hardship by starting a day-care business in their home.
"I definitely don't see myself as rich," says Lott, who is saving to purchase a downtown luxury condominium. That will be the case, he says, "the day I don't have to go to work every single day."
Sometimes referred to by marketers as the "mass affluent," the new rich make up roughly 25 million U.S. households and account for nearly 40 percent of total U.S. consumer spending.
While paychecks shrank for most Americans after the 2007-2009 recession, theirs held steady or edged higher. In 2012, the top 20 percent of U.S. households took home a record 51 percent of the nation's income. The median income of this group is more than $150,000.
Once concentrated in the old-money enclaves of the Northeast, the new rich are now spread across the U.S., mostly in bigger cities and their suburbs. They include Washington, D.C.; Boston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. By race, whites are three times more likely to reach affluence than nonwhites.
Paul F. Nunes, managing director at Accenture's Institute for High Performance and Research, calls this group "the new power brokers of consumption." Because they spend just 60 percent of their before-tax income, often setting the rest aside for retirement or investing, he says their capacity to spend more will be important to a U.S. economic recovery.
In Miami, developers are betting on a growing luxury market, building higher-end malls featuring Cartier, Armani and Louis Vuitton and hoping to expand on South Florida's Bal Harbour, a favored hideaway of the rich.
"It's not that I don't have money. It's more like I don't have time," said Deborah Sponder, 57, walking her dog Ava recently along Miami's blossoming Design District. She was headed to one of her two art galleries this one between the Emilio Pucci and Cartier stores and close to the Louis Vuitton and Hermes storefronts.
But Sponder says she doesn't consider her income of $250,000 as upper class, noting that she is paying college tuition for her three children. "Between rent, schooling and everything - it comes in and goes out."
Economists say the group's influence will only grow as middle-class families below them struggle. Corporate profits and the stock market are hitting records while the median household income of $51,000 is at its lowest since 1995. That's a boon for upper-income people who are more likely to invest in stocks.
(Read more: )
At the same time, some 54 percent of working-age Americans will experience near-poverty for portions of their lives, hurt by globalization and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs.
Both Democrats and Republicans are awakening to the political realities presented by this new demographic bubble.
Traditionally Republican, the group makes up more than 1 in 4 voters and is now more politically divided, better educated and less white and male than in the past, according to Election Day exit polls dating to the 1970s.
Sixty-nine percent of upper-income voters backed Republican Ronald Reagan and his supply-side economics of tax cuts in 1984. By 2008, Democrat Barack Obama had split their vote evenly, 49-49.
In 2012, Obama lost the group, with 54 percent backing Republican Mitt Romney. Still, Obama's performance among higher-income voters exceeded nearly every Democrat before him.
Some Democratic analysts have urged the party to tread more lightly on issues of income inequality, even after the recent election of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made the issue his top campaign priority.
In recent weeks, media attention has also focused on growing liberal enthusiasm for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., whose push to hold banks and Wall Street accountable could stoke Occupy Wall Street-style populist anger against the rich.
"For the Democrats' part, traditional economic populism is poorly suited for affluent professionals," says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University professor who specializes in political polarization.
The new rich includes Robert Kane, 39, of Colorado Springs, Colo.
A former stock broker who once owned three houses and voted steadfastly Republican, Kane says he was humbled after the 2008 financial meltdown, which he says exposed Wall Street's excesses. Now a senior vice president for a private equity firm specializing in the marijuana business, Kane says he's concerned about upward mobility for the poor and calls wealthy politicians such as Romney "out of touch."
But Kane, now a registered independent, draws the line when it comes to higher taxes.
"A dollar is best in your hand rather than the government's," he says.
—By The Associated Press