Thomas Sowell

What about those "rich" people we hear so much about? Studies that follow the same individuals over time have found that those in the top 20 percent and those in the bottom 20 percent are mostly the same people at different stages of their lives. Not only does work pay, when you have worked a longer time, it usually pays more.

High-income people are typically people who have reached their peak earning years in middle age. What does it take to reach the top 20 percent in income? In 2001, it took a little less than $85,000 -- for a whole household! (This is a different Census publication: "Current Population Reports," P60-218.)

How many yachts these people are going to buy, even if they get those "tax cuts for the rich" we hear about, is another story.

To reach the top 5 percent, you need an income of about $150,000 -- again, for a whole household. A middle-aged couple who have worked their way up in middle-class jobs, over a period of decades, can reach this peak -- and have much of it taxed away.

These publicly available numbers may be surprising news to some because neither in the media nor in academia do the envy zealots like to talk about actual dollars and cents. Or about work -- one of the few four-letter words that remains taboo.

They prefer to talk about percentage shares going to some people versus others. But people do not live on percentages. They live on money and on the things that money can buy, which is to say, their real income.

Despite all the hand-wringing about the fact that the bottom 20 percent get a smaller share than in times past, the real income of the bottom 20 percent has gone up by thousands of dollars. Moreover, the people who were in that bottom 20 percent in the past have also gone up into higher brackets.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

Creators Syndicate