20% of the people are in the top 2% at some point

Marginal Revolution points out an article by Hope Yen, which says:

Fully 20 percent of U.S. adults become rich for parts of their lives, wielding extensive influence over America’s economy and politics, according to new survey data.

[…] The new rich have household income of $250,000 or more at some point during their working lives, putting them — if sometimes temporarily — in the top 2 percent of earners.

This is something I’ve wondered for a long time.  The debate about income/wealth levels of Americans tends to make the simplifying assumption that people are or aren’t in the top X%.  But of course that’s not how life goes.  I make more than double what I did at the start of my career.  I hope that a decade from now, I’ll make yet more than I do right now (and that my wife will as well).

I’d like to know more.  How many people who are right now in the bottom 20% will still be in the bottom 20% in a decade (or, less speculatively, how many people who were in the bottom 20% a decade ago…)?  I don’t have preconceptions about what the numbers are — I just want to know.

This is also something for people who are trying to build political coalitions around divisions of upper and lower income people — you may think that if you’re crusading against the top 1% to 5%, that obviously you’re on the right side of a massive demographic split — but if a large percentage of your constituency does not currently qualify as the top X%, but has aspirations (and perhaps reasonable aspirations) to do so, they may not be super excited to work against their interests.


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