Inequality in family incomes increased in each of the three decades from 1987 to 2017 as income grew fastest for those with higher incomes.
- In 2017, the average income for the highest 20% of families was 3.2 times as high as that for the middle 20% ($245,040 vs. $75,840 in 2017 dollars). It was just 2.6 times as high in 1987 ($167,390 vs. $64,000).
- The average income for the middle 20% of families was 4.0 times as high as that for the lowest 20% ($75,840 vs. $18,940) in 2017. It was 3.6 times as high in 1987 ($64,000 vs. $17,610).
- Unlike those with higher incomes, the 20% of families with the lowest incomes have not yet reached the prerecession (inflation-adjusted) income levels of their 2007 counterparts, although they have recovered some of the income lost during the recession.
- In 2017, median incomes for black and Hispanic families were 59% and 62%, respectively, of the median for white families. Median income for Asian families was 8% higher than the median for white families.
- In 2017, the $119,120 median family income for families headed by a four-year college graduate was more than twice the median for families headed by a high school graduate.
Figure 20A: Percentage Change in Inflation-Adjusted Mean Family Income by Quintile, 1987 to 1997, 1997 to 2007, and 2007 to 2017
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2017 Annual Social and Economic Supplement, Table F-1, Table F-3, Table F-5, and FINC-01; calculations by the authors.
Figure 20B: Median Family Income by Selected Characteristics, 2017
- Average incomes for all quintiles fell between 2007 and 2010. Average incomes began to recover in 2011 for the top 5% and top 20% of families and later for the other quintiles. (U.S. Census Bureau, Table F-3)
- The share of all income going to the 20% of families with the lowest incomes has steadily declined, from 4.6% in 1987 to 4.2% in 1997, to 4.1% in 2007, and to 3.8% in 2017. The share of income going to the top 5% of families rose from 17.2% in 1987 to 20.7% in 1997. It was 20.1% in 2007 and 20.7% in 2017. (U.S. Census Bureau, Table F-2)
- Average published tuition and fees for in-state students attending public four-year colleges rose by $6,770 (in 2017 dollars) over this 30-year period—57% of the increase in income ($11,840) of the middle 20% of families and 9% of the increase in income ($77,650) of the 20% of families in the highest income bracket. (Online Table 2; calculations by the authors)