By Arloc Sherman
April 17, 2009

New data from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) show that in 2006, the top 1 percent of households had a larger share of the nation’s after-tax income, and the middle and bottom fifths of households had smaller shares, than in any year since 1979, the first year the CBO data cover. As a result, the gaps in after-tax incomes between households in the top 1 percent and those in the middle and bottom fifths were the widest on record.
The data reveal starkly uneven income growth over recent decades. Between 1979 and 2006, real after-tax incomes rose by 256 percent — or $863,000 — for the top 1 percent of households, compared to 21 percent — or $9,200 — for households in the middle fifth of households and 11 percent — or $1,600 — for households in the bottom fifth. In 2006, the average household in the top 1 percent had an income of $1.2 million, up $63,000 just from the prior year; this $63,000 gain is nearly two times the total income of the average middle-income household.

In addition, the share of national after-tax income going to the top 1 percent of households more than doubled between 1979 and 2006, rising from 7.5 percent to 16.3 percent.

Taken together with prior research, the new data suggest greater income concentration at the top than at any time since 1929. The data precede the current recession, which is likely to reduce the income of the wealthiest Americans substantially, given the decline in the stock market, and thereby shrink somewhat the income gap between rich and poor households. But there was a similar development when the bubble burst a few years ago — income at the top of the income scale fell sharply — and it turned out to be just a speed bump. Incomes at the top more than made up the lost ground from 2004 to 2006. (