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Wharton students think the average American makes six figures. Here’s the reality

The huge pay gap among workers at the top and bottom makes the middle more difficult to calculate.

Wharton students think the average American makes six figures. Here’s the reality
[Source Images: John Scott/Getty]

A tweet from a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School went viral on Twitter after she said a quarter of her students thought the average American made over six figures per year.

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The tweet, from Nina Strohminger, has amassed thousands of comments, retweets, and likes since its posting Wednesday night, igniting a conversation about what people know—or don’t know, as the case may be—about how much money most workers make.

The annual median wage in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $41,950, while the mean is $56,310. But that hardly tells the whole story.

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For instance, the average income for financial clerks, rehabilitation counselors, and lab and med techs may hover around the above figure, but it’s considerably lower for fast food cooks, shampooers, and fast food counter workers, whose average income is a little over $23,000 a year, near the bottom of the bureau’s list of occupations. That’s just a tenth of what the top earners—anesthesiologists, surgeons, OB-GYNs, and orthodontists—make in a year, each exceeding $230,000 on average. And even that’s not close to the $800,000 one student estimated, which would put someone squarely in the 1% in many states.

It can be difficult to imagine this gap, especially when discussions around pay rates have traditionally been so taboo. Income transparency is becoming more and more common, like with the recent passage of a New York City bill that will require employers to list minimum and maximum salaries for job postings in the city.

This may not clear up misconceptions about typical wages among students at one of the country’s most prestigious business schools (management occupations, on the whole, have an average annual income of $126,480), but it could be a step in the right direction. What’s more, Wharton, with a class size of 897 and an acceptance rate of 12.2% for its class of 2023, is surely not a representative sample of American workers.

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But if the numbers aren’t convincing, a glance into the replies to Strohminger’s viral tweet almost certainly will be.

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