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With income inequality a persistent hot topic in the Democratic presidential primary, it’s not surprising that a familiar meme is circulating on Facebook claiming that Congress is far richer than the public.
The Facebook post says that 50% of Congress is made up of millionaires, compared with only 1% of America as a whole. Similar Facebook posts have circulated at least since 2011, but we wanted to find more current numbers.
Unlike many of the statements we fact-check on Facebook, this one has some truth to it. A key analysis showed that close to half of the House and Senate members are millionaires. We couldn’t find a source that said 1% of the American public are millionaires, but we do know that it’s far less than in Congress.
The post was recently flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The Facebook post says: "Let that sink in and tell me again how you become a multi millionaire earning $174,000 annually?"
That is the salary for members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, with leadership positions paying slightly more. But many members were wealthy before they arrived.
The Center for Responsive Politics compiles financial disclosures of members of Congress. Those disclosure forms do not require exact values so the reports show the value of assets and liabilities within a range. The intent of the disclosures is to highlight potential conflicts of interest, not give a complete accounting of a member’s personal valuation, according to the center.
The center’s data for 2016 shows the members’ financial data in three categories: minimum net worth, average and maximum net worth. If we use the average net worth category for the House and Senate, it showed about 48% have worths of at least $1 million. The richest member was then-U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. who had a net wealth of about $324 million and made much of his wealth from a car alarm company.
Roll Call analyzed 530 members by their by their minimum net worths. By that measurement, there are 207 who are worth at least $1 million. That method results in about 39% of the members being millionaires.
It’s clear that the wealth of Congress is disproportionate to the general public, but by how much?
According to the Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve Board, 12% of family economic units had $1 million or more of net wealth (all assets minus all debts), said Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. A family economic unit consists of the heads of the families and dependents who live with them.
We found some other analyses about how many Americans are millionaires, but none were the 1% cited in the Facebook post.
Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report showed that there are approximately 18.6 million Americans with a net worth in excess of $1 million, which works out to about 8% of the adult population.
Spectrem Group found that in 2018, there were 11.8 million American households with a net worth of at least $1 million. That works out to about 5% of the adult population. The market research firm quantifies millionaire households by net worth, not including primary residence.
It’s possible that when the Facebook post said that 1% of people are millionaires, it was referring to annual income, which is different than net wealth. Net worth includes a person’s cash, home value, stocks, bonds and other property minus any debts owed.
But if we used income as the benchmark, the calculation for Congress would be different. The House and Senate members don’t earn $1 million in their salary, but some earn investment income.
For the population as a whole, IRS data for 2017 showed about 500,000 tax returns had incomes of at least $1 million. There were about 104 million tax returns filed, so that means less than 1 percent were for people who earned at least $1 million.
A Facebook post said 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires compared with only 1% of the American public as a whole.
The number of millionaires in Congress is hard to pinpoint precisely, because they disclose their finances in ranges. But data from the Center for Responsive Politics showed that about 48% were worth at least $1 million.
The post understates the number of millionaires among the public. A more accurate number would be between 5% and 12%. But the general point that millionaires in Congress far outpace those among citizens is correct.
This statement rates Half True.
Center for Responsive Politics, Net worth
Roll Call, Net worth
Credit Suisse’s Global Wealth Report, 2019
SpectremGroup, Press release, March 2019
Los Angeles Times, Meet the richest member of Congress: California’s Issa earned it as car alarm mogul, Nov. 3, 2015
PolitiFact, Facebook post says Congress has disproportionate share of millionaires, Nov. 21, 2011
PolitiFact, Warren: Top 0.1% own about as much as the bottom 90%, Jan. 31, 2019
PolitiFact, Bernie Sanders says 49% of ‘new’ income goes to the top 1%, Sept. 29, 2019
Email interview, Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, Jan. 16, 2020
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