Who Wants to Be a 'Single-Digit' Millionaire?

Peter Thiel’s remarks about the plight of Hulk Hogan are emblematic of divisions among the top 1 percent.

Gary Cameron / Reuters

On Monday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Peter Thiel, a PayPal cofounder and entrepreneur, remarked on the legal affair that he bankrolled and that made him infamous in certain coastal enclaves—Hulk Hogan’s invasion-of-privacy lawsuit against Gawker, the website that was shuttered as a result. Among Thiel’s many newsworthy comments on Monday, this one stood out: "If you're a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system."

The remark scattered across social media like 100 million pennies, mostly in a tenor of sardonic pity for all the poor millionaires out there. But Thiel’s comment was revelatory, in an Aaron Sorkin, “A million dollars isn’t cool” kind of way. While the alleged failure of millionaires to secure justice in this world seems like splitting hairs, an actual division among the very affluent in the United States has emerged in recent years, particularly with respect to so-called single-digit millionaires.

Though the total number of millionaires and the importance of the designation itself remain up for debate, financial analysts agree that the number of millionaires has been growing steadily since 2013. By one count, 300,000 Americans became millionaires last year alone.

This has, in essence, created a glut for those whose jobs entail making the rich even richer. As a result, the private financial services industry has been forced to privilege the most privileged.  “Early this year, [JP Morgan Chase] announced that the minimum asset level to remain a private banking customer would double,” from $5 million to $10 million, The Guardian noted last month. “When that takes effect early next year, about 10 percent of the bank’s customers could be shuffled off to a less deluxe service, Private Client Direct.”

Indeed, last year when Paul Sullivan of The New York Times sought to profile millionaires who lived frugally, he focused his efforts on Americans whose wealth didn’t surpass “the $10.86 million estate tax exemption level for couples”—a threshold beyond which tax and legal advisers tend to get called in. In other words, single-digit millionaires are somehow still pure. “They’ve come from the middle class, the working class, and they still believe they’re part of the 99 percent, no matter what, because that’s how they identify themselves,” one wealth manager told Sullivan after he marveled at rich people who drive old cars and darn their own socks.

What’s unfortunate about the recent rise of U.S. millionaires—aside from their occasional reliance on billionaires for legal aid—is that their financial success has come disproportionately quickly compared to other income groups. As data released by the U.S. Census last year showed, only households in the top 10 percent saw their incomes grow beyond Great Recession-levels. (It wasn’t until last month that across-the-board wage increases began to show, though even those could not bring earnings above where they were before the recession, after adjusting for inflation.) Achieving millionaire status may not carry the prestige it once did, but it’s still nice work if you can get it.