September 13, 2018

Government surveys collect a wide range of information about the population of the United States that contain useful insights about Americans’ economic status. Three examples are the American Community Survey (ACS), the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), and the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). The ACS and the ASEC are conducted annually by the Census Bureau, while the SCF is conducted once every three years by the Federal Reserve. Below are some examples of measures of income and wealth from those surveys.

Income Levels Vary Across Geography, Race, and Gender

The ASEC is the primary source for income data at the national level. According to the ASEC, median household income for 2017 was $61,372 — an increase of 1.8 percent from the previous year, after adjusting for inflation. Looking at data for national averages, however, may mask important differences by region, race, level of education, or other categories.

The table below shows that median income varies by region — for example, it is higher for households in the Northeast and West than it is for those in the Midwest and South.


The Northeast and West have higher median household incomes than the Midwest and South

Region2016 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)2017 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)
United States$60,309$61,372
West65,65867,517
Northeast65,77466,450
Midwest59,55861,136
South55,01955,709

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017, September 2018. Compiled by PGPF.


The table below shows median household income data for selected states. According to the ACS, in 2016, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and New Jersey had the highest median household incomes. West Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas had the lowest median household incomes. Such figures do not reflect differences in the cost of living between regions.


Median household incomes vary widely by state

State2016 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)2017 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)
District of Columbia$76,657$82,372
Maryland80,51680,776
New Jersey77,46080,088
Arkansas45,23045,869
Mississippi42,59043,529
West Virginia44,37243,469

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Household Income: 2017, September 2018. Compiled by PGPF.

NOTE: The states are ranked by point estimate in 2017. In some cases, the differences between point estimates are not statistically significant.


Income also varies by race and ethnicity. The ASEC data below shows median household income grouped by the race and ethnicity of the head of household. In 2017, households whose head was classified as Asian or White had median incomes that were higher than the national median, while households headed by people classified as Black or Hispanic had median incomes that were lower than the national median.


In 2017, median household income varied considerably by race and ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity of Household Head2016 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)2017 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)
All races/ethnicities$60,309$61,372
Asian83,18381,331
White, not Hispanic66,44068,145
Hispanic (any race)48,70050,486
Black40,34040,258

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017, September 2018. Compiled by PGPF.

Income by racial and ethnic groups in the United States

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The table below shows median household income, grouped by educational attainment of the household head. Households led by an individual with a bachelor’s degree or above have incomes that are considerably higher than the national median. Households led by an individual with less than a high school diploma earn less than half of the national median.


Median household income varies based on the educational attainment of the household head

Educational Attainment of Household Head2016 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)2017 Median Household Income (2017 dollars)
All education levels$60,309$61,372
Less than high school28,00028,511
High school or equivalent42,80044,010
Some college55,83557,200
Bachelor’s degree or higher95,21298,038

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Income and Poverty in the United States: 2017, September 2018 and Current Population Survey: Annual Social and Economic Supplement, September 2018. Compiled by PGPF.


It is possible to analyze income data based on a combination of demographics. For example, the table below compares the median earnings for male and female full-time, year-round workers at different levels of education. In 2017, the median earnings for full-time, year-round male workers was higher than the median earnings for full-time, year-round female workers, given the same level of educational attainment.


Full-time male workers earn more than full-time female workers at all levels of educational attainment

Educational Attainment of Individual2017 Median Individual Earnings (Full-Time Male Workers)2017 Median Individual Earnings (Full-Time Female Workers)
All education levels$52,000$41,600
Less than high school31,00024,000
High school or equivalent40,00030,000
Some college50,00036,000
Bachelor’s degree or higher80,00060,000

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey: Annual Social and Economic Supplement, September 2018. Compiled by PGPF.


Wealth is an Important Component of Americans’ Economic Status

When it comes to describing the financial status of Americans, income doesn’t tell the whole story. Income measures the flow of money and assets during a given period of time. Wealth measures the stock of money and assets accumulated as of a certain point in time. A household with an income of $100,000 that saves $5,000 each year would have $25,000 of additional wealth at the end of five years.

The SCF measures wealth by using a concept called net worth. Net worth is the difference between a household’s assets and its debt. For example, if a household has $10,000 in its checking account, $40,000 of student debt, and $5,000 of credit card debt, then it has a net worth of -$35,000.

The table below shows median net worth in 2016 by race and education. (This data is updated once every three years; the next update will contain data for 2019, therefore no 2017 update was possible.) It illustrates how net worth varies by race, even when controlling for education level.


Household net worth varies by race

Median Net Worth
Race/Ethnicity of Household Head All households Household head only completed HS Household head has college degree
White, not Hispanic $162,770 $100,600 $391,000
Hispanic (any race) 21,360 26,800 73,910
Black 16,300 10,010 68,300
Other 102,000 52,301 368,600

SOURCE: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances, September 2017. Compiled by PGPF.


The ASEC, ACS, and SCF contain data for many more demographic categories, such as occupation, family structure, marital status, and number of children. Such data highlight variations among populations in the United States and can help lawmakers evaluate policies to address such differences.


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