America's wealthiest citizens got wealthier last year while much of the rest of the nation saw a drop in income, according to 2011 figures released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
"The top end took a whack in the recession, but they've gotten back on their feet," Harvard economics professor Lawrence Katz told the New York Times. "Everyone else is still down for the count."
The result is a growing income gap between rich and poor Americans, a trend that began more than three decades ago. The median household income dropped last year to $50,054.
Those at the very top of the income bracket - the top five percent of American households who earn above $186,000 annually - saw a jump of almost 5% in revenue, and the top 20% of households increased their income by 1.6% last year.
The figures show women who work full time earn 77% of what men earn, unchanged from 2010.
But the vast majority of Americans, those in the middle who earn $38,500 to $101,600, lost up to 1.9% of their annual income from 2010. Statistically, the poorest Americans saw no change.
"It appears the gap between the top income group and the bottom income group is growing," said Ed Welniak, Chief of Income Statistics for the Census Bureau in an interview. "It's widened by nearly 15% since 2009."
Economists say the figures are influenced both by personal choices and economic factors, including a recent turnaround for American businesses which helps those at the top.
"In more recent years, the share of company revenues has gone more to business owners and bond holders, and less to their workers," said Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. "When a smaller percentage of company revenue goes to the workers, the family incomes of the workers will suffer a bit in comparison with the family incomes of the company owners and bondholders."
Burtless also said the gap can be traced to changing marriage and birth patterns in the U.S.
"High income people continue to be married when they have and raise children," he said, noting that a smaller percentage of low-wage and low-education Americans are married when they have children. "This creates families with only a single breadwinner."
The report is based on figures from 121 million American households. The top 20% of households, those making over $101,600, controlled 51.1% of all income in the U.S. last year. The bottom 20% of households, those making below $20,300, controlled just 3.2% of all income.