Are Activists Giving the Other Top 19 Percent a Pass?

Lucas Jackson / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

While it seems counterproductive to futz with such an effective tagline, a new Brookings series on the American upper-middle class suggests that income-inequality activists should perhaps be fixing their gaze at the top 20 percent instead of just the 1 percent.

Across a span of different measures—income, educational attainment, marriage rates, political clout—America’s upper-middle class, which could be defined as the top quintile of income earners, also enjoys disproportionate advantages. The whole report is worth a look, but one telling chart tracks how the top 20 percent of the wealthiest Americans managed to capture a majority of the country’s total income in the course of four-plus decades:

Part of why the focus has evaded that other 19 percent may be self-perception. For example, in his report, Richard Reeves notes that “over a third of the demonstrators on the May Day ‘Occupy’ march in 2011 had annual earnings of more than $100,000.” In other words, some of those rallying, marching, or even (God forbid) writing about income inequality have benefitted from the very advantages they’re protesting in more ways than they could have imagined.