October 4, 2019

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), which is the most reliable source for income data at the state and local level; the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC), which serves as the primary source for income data at the national level; and the Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF), which provides detailed data on household wealth.

The ASEC and the ACS 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

According to the ASEC, median household income was $63,179 in 2018, which is not statistically different from the median household income in 2017. 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

Region 2017 Median Household Income (2018 dollars) 2018 Median Household Income (2018 dollars)
United States $62,626 $63,179
Northeast 67,192 70,113
West 68,593 69,520
Midwest 62,613 64,069
South 57,134 57,299

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2018 and 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

NOTE: The differences between the values above are not all statistically significant at the confidence level used by the Census Bureau.


The next table shows median household income data for selected states. According to the ACS, in 2018, 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 among regions.


Median household incomes vary widely by state

State 2017 Median Household Income (2018 dollars) 2018 Median Household Income (2018 dollars)
District of Columbia $84,551 $85,203
Maryland 82,747 83,242
New Jersey 81,763 81,740
Arkansas 46,859 47,062
Mississippi 44,604 44,717
West Virginia 44,587 44,097

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, 2017 and 2018 American Community Surveys, 1-Year Estimates.

NOTE: The differences between the values above are not all statistically significant at the confidence level used by the Census Bureau.


Income also varies by race and ethnicity. The table and chart below show median household income grouped by the race and ethnicity of the head of household. In 2018, 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 2018, median household income varied considerably by race and ethnicity

Race/Ethnicity of Household Head 2017 Median Household Income (2018 dollars) 2018 Median Household Income
All races/ethnicities $62,626 $63,179
Asian 83,376 87,194
White, not Hispanic 69,851 70,642
Hispanic (any race) 51,389 51,450
Black 40,324 41,361

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2018 and 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

NOTE: The differences between the values above are not all statistically significant at the confidence level used by the Census Bureau.

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 over 25 years of age with a bachelor’s degree or more have incomes that are considerably higher than the national median. Households led by an individual over age 25 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 Head 2018 Median Household Income
All education levels $64,761
Less than 9th grade 26,875
Some high school 29,204
High school or equivalent 46,073
Some college, no degree 57,807
Associate degree 65,647
Bachelor's degree or more 101,822

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

NOTE: The data in this table exclude households that are led by an individual who is under 25 years of age. The differences between all of the values above are statistically significant at the confidence level used by the Census Bureau.


The ASEC also gathers data on earnings, which is defined as compensation for work. In other words, earnings include wages and salaries, but exclude income sources such as public assistance and interest payments. In 2018, the median earnings for full-time, year-round male workers was $10,000 higher than the median earnings for full-time, year-round female workers.


Male workers earn more than female workers

Full-Time, Year-Round Workers 2017 Median Individual Earnings (2018 Dollars) 2018 Median Individual Earnings (2018 Dollars)
Men $53,459 $55,291
Women 43,658 45,097

SOURCE: United States Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2018 and 2019 Annual Social and Economic Supplements.

NOTE: The differences between all of the values above are statistically significant at the confidence level used by the Census Bureau.


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 be released in 2020 and will contain data for 2019.) It illustrates how net worth varies by race, even when controlling for education level.


Household net worth varies by race

Median Net Worth (2016 Dollars)
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.


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.


Related: CBO: Income Inequality Continues to Rise


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