Personal Finance

Here's how much money those 1 percenters really make

Key Points
  • Data from the IRS show the minimum levels of adjusted gross income that top taxpayers earned in 2015.
  • The numbers likely reveal just part of the financial picture for the top tiers of U.S. taxpayers, according to one tax expert.
Here's how much you need to earn to be part of the one percent
Here's how much you need to earn to be part of the one percent

How do you stack up against the wealthiest Americans?

To be a 1 percenter, you need to have an adjusted gross income of at least $480,930, according to the latest data from the IRS, which looked at income statistics for tax year 2015. The top 1 percent accounted for 1.4 million individual income tax returns — out of 141.2 million total — that year.

If that income cutoff isn't dispiriting enough, to be part of the top 0.1 percent, which represented 141,205 returns in 2015, your adjusted gross income needed to be at least $2.2 million. Entry to the top 0.01 percent, representing 14,120 returns, required adjusted gross income of $11.9 million or more.

The top 0.001 percent had adjusted gross income of at least $59.4 million that tax year. Just 1,412 returns came from those taxpayers.

In comparison, the adjusted gross income for the top 50 percent of individual income tax returns was $39,275. (See chart below; click to enlarge.)

The top 50 percent accounted for 97.2 percent of the total income tax paid in tax year 2015. (See chart below; click to enlarge.)

Meanwhile, the top 1 percent accounted for 39 percent of total income tax paid, while the top 0.1 percent represented 19.5 percent; the top 0.01 percent, 8.7 percent; and the top 0.001 percent, 3.5 percent. (See chart below; click to enlarge.)

Those rosy figures reflect economic growth, experts say.

"The basic story is, for the last eight years or so we have been in a period of economic expansion," said Scott Greenberg, a former senior analyst at the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and law school student.

But adjusted gross income is limited in its ability to determine economy-wide trends, Greenberg cautioned. That is because other sources of income, such as interest from tax-exempt municipal bonds, are not included, he said.

Tax data can be extremely useful for deciphering trends when it comes to high-income individuals, who can be more difficult to research in polls or surveys, Greenberg said.

"Nothing is quite effective like the tax authority requiring them to report information about themselves every year," he said.

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