Making it to the 1 percent is more common than you think

Han Shan, an Occupy Wall Street protester, makes a 1 percent shirt while protesting outside of the annual Bank of America Corp. shareholders meeting on May 9, in Charlotte, N.C.

Barrett Yeretsian sits in his condo. Yeretsian was catapulted into the 1 percent after a song he wrote, Jar of Hearts, debuted on the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

The "1 percent" and the "99 percent" have become household phrases in the last few years. But in the course of moving discussions of income distribution percentiles beyond economic text books and in to the popular discourse of sound bites and protest signs, the nuances can get lost. Which brings us to some interesting new research about the 1 percent, discussed in a recent book called “Chasing the American Dream.” 

Back when the Occupy Wall Street movement was fond of chanting “We are the 99 percent” the book’s co-author, Mark Rank, got curious about some of the assumptions buried in that chant. Who exactly is the 99 percent? What’s their relationship to that remaining, increasingly notorious 1 percent?

The whole debate struck Rank as very us versus them. “There’s this image out there that those two groups do not cross over -- that they're static groups,” he says. 

Rank is a professor of social welfare at Washington University in St. Louis, and so he had the tools to see if this static image of the 1 percent versus everyone else was true. He and his co-author, Thomas Hirschl of Cornell, combed through four decades of survey data that followed the lives of thousands of Americans to see how much money they made each year.  And what they found surprised them.

The top-earners club isn’t quite the bastioned, unreachable world it's been painted out to be. “There actually is this really strong sense of fluidity in terms of folks entering the top income percentiles,” Rank says.  According to Rank and Hirschl’s research, one in five Americans are in the 2 percent at some point in their lives. And one in eight spend at least a year in the one percent.

So who are these visitors to the 1 percent? Some might be your neighbors.

Barrett Yeretsian, 34, lives in the southern California suburb of Glendale, CA in a totally non-descript condo — the same one he grew up in. Yeretsian says growing up, he was solidly middle class. His mom, a widow, owned an Armenian book store in Los Angeles, and money was sometimes tight. Scholarships and help from family got him through college at UCLA.

When he graduated, he turned down acceptance at two top law schools in favor of trying to make it in the music industry, as a song-writer and producer. After years almost making it, a few years ago, a song he wrote in his bedroom, became this smash hit, Jar of Hearts, after it debuted on the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

 

Literally over night, “everything changed,” Yeretsian says. Including his income.  That year he catapulted in to the 1 percent. But, he says, tries not to live like he has. “Keep the overhead low. Enjoy life,” is his philosophy. (He was a philosophy major in college, and traces his non-lavish lifestyle back to reading Thoreau’s Walden.)

“Don't get me wrong, I go to Hawaii every year,” he says. And he’s bought several rental properties as investments. “Financially, I’m in a comfortable position. I think that's the big difference is you have that comfort.” 

Jason Laan is another recent arrival to the 1 percent, who made the leap after his iPhone app made it big. For him, the surprising thing about being at the top is that it doesn't always feel like the top. 

“The 1 percenters we think of spend $10,000 on a commode,” Laan says. “If you make $340,000” — the approximate household income needed to break into the 1 percent in the last few years — “you're not going to waste money on something like that.”

Laan says the year he made enough to qualify as a “1 percenter,” he asked his accountant about whether he should consider trying to take advantage of tax loop holes or off-shore accounts, to protect some of his money. His accountant laughed and told him he wasn't rich enough.

“You’re not connected enough to try to hide your assets in such a way,” Laan recalls his accountant saying. “You can’t afford the overhead.” 

Another thing about the latest research on the 1 percent from Rank and Hirschl: While one in eight Americans might visit the 1 percent for a year, only one in a hundred stay there for a decade or more.


How much you have to earn in order to make it into the "1 percent" by year.

Year Household
Income (USD)
1967 171,737
1968 191,151
1969 193,437
1970 191,119
1971 200,383
1972 217,578
1973 226,942
1974 222,524
1975 213,235
1976 234,114
1977 217,740
1978 229,473
1979 228,014
1980 222,287
1981 216,483
1982 211,998
1983 219,320
1984 235,775
1985 229,477
1986 240,388
1987 254,770
1988 277,464
1989 257,154
1990 257,815
1991 248,205
1992 262,715
1993 333,888
1994 308,292
1995 301,423
1996 320,269
1998 364,160
2000 440,253
2002 363,702
2004 362,315
2006 379,511
2008 376,608
2010 332,300

Source: Mark R. Rank, Thomas A. Hirschl, Is it just the One Percent, or is Affluence a Normal Life Course Event?, Cornell Univeristy

About the author

Krissy Clark is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk.

Barrett Yeretsian sits in his condo. Yeretsian was catapulted into the 1 percent after a song he wrote, Jar of Hearts, debuted on the reality show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

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