The United States is arguably one of the most economically well-off places on the planet. The U.S. accounts for 30% of global wealth, or $126.3 trillion, according to Credit Suisse’s 2021 Global Wealth Databook. The second-largest repository, China, is responsible for 19%, or $74.9 trillion. This makes the U.S. the richest country on Earth, in terms of total wealth.
The U.S. also has the most millionaires in the world—40% of the world’s supply, or 21.2 million adults, according to the 2020 Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report. Not surprisingly, the country with the second-highest number is China, with 5.3 million individuals. Considering this seemingly limitless potential for economic prosperity, it’s not surprising that more than a million people immigrate to the U.S. each year.
However, that wealth is not distributed equally across all parts of the United States. Income inequality in the U.S. is considerable. Despite the more than $126 trillion in total wealth, 13.7% of the U.S. population lived in poverty, according to a 2021 research report by the Urban Institute. Poverty figures going forward in the midst of the pandemic will almost certainly be higher. Another inequality stamp: The median wealth per adult for the United States for 2021 was $79,274 In the highest-ranking country—Switzerland—it was $146,733.
Measuring Wealth: What Median Income Tells Us
Median income is a particularly good way to look at how people are doing, both nation to nation and among states in the U.S. Here’s why.
There are several ways to assess wealth in a given area. A state’s gross domestic product (GDP) offers a glimpse into its overall economic health, but not necessarily how individuals and households are doing. Mean income (the sum total of all values divided by the number of values in a dataset—otherwise know as the average) is the primary mathematical value for making comparisons. But having a large number of either high-earning one-percenters or low-income people in a region can skew the end result in terms of revealing how much money individuals actually earn.
The median gives you a better picture. It is determined by lining up all values in a dataset in numerical order, then finding the “middle” value. A state’s median income is exactly halfway between what people earn on both sides of the wealth spectrum. That makes median income a much more accurate assessment of what the average American is making annually than the actual average income.
How Race and Gender Affect Income
Structural racism and sexism severely and negatively impact many Americans and their families. Here, we look at individual income to focus on how individual workers are faring.
A significant contributing factor to American income inequality is a disparity in earnings by race. The differences are stark. Controlling for other factors, a 2021 study by Payscale.com points to a $2,000 pay disparity for being a Black woman and a $1,100 pay disparity for being a Black man. Additionally, Black and Latinx families were more than twice as likely to have zero (or negative) net worth. White families were also more likely to own homes (72%) than Black families (42%) in 2017 (the last year for which full data is available).
A prominent income gap also exists between men and women in the United States. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women make approximately 82 cents for every dollar of men’s wages. Contributing to these discrepancies: Men constitute approximately one-third of minimum-wage workers, while women account for just 8% of Fortune 500 CEOs.
Race intersects with gender. Asian and White women earn a median of $1,091 and $912 per week, respectively; Black women and Latinas earn a median of $775 and $706 per week, respectively. And although all women were more likely to live in poverty than White men in 2019, women of color experienced a higher poverty rate than White women.
Median Household Income
One of the measures of income provided by the U.S. Census Bureau—and the one we chose to use for our state-to-state comparison—is median household (HH) income. This is the total gross income of all persons 15 years or older within a housing unit. When the Census Bureau measures and compares how different parts of the nation are doing, “median HH Income is perhaps the single most widely used measure of income in the census,” as the Missouri Census Data Center explains. Median household income can include households with only one resident as well as those with multiple residents who are not related (i.e., roommates).
Median household income is different from two other measures that the census uses:
- Median per capita income, which looks at each individual person’s income, rather than treating a household as a singular entity.
- Median family income, which only considers households with two or more people related by birth, marriage, or adoption.
As of 2021, the most recent available figures, the median U.S. annual household income was $79,900.
Richest States by Median Income
The map above shows the pattern of median income, across the U.S. Let’s start with a look at the richest states.
Special Consideration: The District of Columbia
- Median household Income: $92,266 (2019)
- Population: 0.71 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 8.1% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 13.5% (2019)
The District of Columbia is not a state, of course, but the U.S. Census Bureau includes it among the 50 states when listing median income. Its inclusion makes sense, given the fact that the District’s median income is higher than any state. As is likely unsurprising, the federal government is the largest employer in the nation’s capital.
Additionally, Washington, D.C., is the only location that beats New Jersey in terms of both population density and median house value. Despite its high income and small population, D.C. also has the highest poverty rate of any of the richest states, with nearly a fourth of all children living below the poverty line.
- Median household income: $86,738 (2019)
- Population: 6.06 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 6.2% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 9.0% (2019)
Maryland’s private-sector industries were responsible for $331.1 billion in economic output in 2020. The Free State also had the largest number of federal jobs per capita, which makes sense, given its adjacency to Washington D.C. Both the Social Security Administration and the Food and Drug Administration are headquartered in Maryland.
- Median household income: $85,843 (2019)
- Population: 6.89 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 7.1% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 9.4% (2019)
Massachusetts’ economy was originally heavily dependent on agriculture and maritime trade, though manufacturing would become more prominent in the 19th century. Today, education and health services employs the largest portion of the Bay State’s workforce. Its hospitality and food industry was also major economic powerhouse, though this took a fairly substantial hit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
3. New Jersey
- Median household income: $85,751 (2019)
- Population: 8.88 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 7.8% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 9.2% (2019)
Not only does New Jersey have the largest population of the three richest (and the three poorest) states, it also has the largest population density of any state in the U.S. Healthcare is the Garden State’s largest industry, adding $37 billion to the state economy and employing approximately 476,900 people. New Jersey is also the birthplace of major industries, such as organized baseball, professional basketball, movies, and passenger flights.
Poorest States by Median Income
Now, the opposite end of the spectrum. These states have the lowest median incomes.
- Median household income: $45,792 (2019)
- Population: 2.97 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 6.3% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 19.6% (2019)
Despite 35% of Mississippi land dedicated to farmland, the federal government is the biggest employer in the Magnolia State. Even so, agriculture still represents a significant industry in Mississippi, employing 29% of the state’s workforce. In addition to having the highest poverty rate of any state in the country, Mississippi is also known as the “hungriest state” in the U.S., with 20% of its population being food insecure.
2. West Virginia
- Median household income: $48,850 (2019)
- Population: 1.78 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 6.2% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 16.0% (2019)
Not only is West Virginia the poorest state by median income, its median household income didn’t increase between 2007 and 2018 (adjusted for inflation). The Equality State is another case where the federal government is the largest employer, but this time it hasn’t pushed enough people out of poverty. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, West Virginia’s 1938 unemployment rate was the highest in U.S. history.
- Median household income: $48,952 (2019)
- Population: 3.03 million (2020)
- Unemployment rate: 4.5% (2021)
- Poverty rate: 16.2% (2019)
Agriculture makes up the Natural State’s largest industry, with farmland comprising 41% of its territory. Forests comprise another 57%, 25% of which belongs to the forestry industry. Despite the low income and high poverty rate, several major companies are headquartered in Arkansas, including Tyson Foods and Walmart.