August 5, 2010 -- Considering the U.S. economy is still struggling, newly-released data showing an all-time record number of food stamp recipients – 40.8 million in May, up by 400,000 compared to April – shouldn't surprise many people.
On the other hand, it may seem peculiar that there was a sharp increase in the number of millionaires.
Yet, according to a newly released report from wealth tracking consultants Capgemini, the number of millionaires across ten major U.S. metropolitan areas increased 17.5 percent in 2009 over 2008. New York City has the most millionaires, 667,000, up 18.7 percent.
The swelling ranks of the millionaires' club comes even as a growing number of people, nearly 40 million at last count, are living in poverty. But trying to draw any hard conclusions from these two seemingly opposing trends is no walk down easy street, even for those specializing in economic research.
"There are going to be commentators who say this shows a greater concentration of wealth in fewer hands or that the rich are soaking the poor, but it's not necessarily the case," said Kristin Seefeldt, a researcher affiliated with the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.
"I do think the fact that there are more millionaires at the same time as there are greater numbers of people living below the poverty line should get us all thinking about what we can do as a society to help the people at the lower end," Seefeldt said.
"What are our obligations? I'm not talking about wealth redistribution. I'm talking about a basic safety net, one that is wearing away and being pushed to the extreme."
The gap between the haves and the have-nots has been widening for the past four decades, according to David Johnson, chief of the U.S. Census Bureau's Housing and Household Economics Statistics Division.
Johnson pointed to historical comparisons of the annual income of the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans versus that of the poorest 10 percent.
In 1967, the first year the Census Bureau began tracking economic disparity, the richest ten percent of the country made, on average, $84,800, or roughly 9 times as much as the poorest ten percent.
In 1986, the wealthiest ten percent made ten times as much as the poorest.
In 2008, the most recent statistical period available, the wealthiest Americans earned, on average, $138,300, or 11.4 times as much as the poorest.
40 Million Poor Americans; 3 Million Millionaires
Meanwhile, the number of Americans living below the poverty line (there are various breakpoints, all based on annual household income; for a single individual under age 65 it's $11,201) is rising.
In 2008, an estimated 39.8 million people, or 13.2 percent of Americans, were living below the poverty threshold.
That's an increase of 6.7 percent compared to 2007, when an estimated 37.3 million people were considered impoverished.
By contrast, in 2009 there were 2.9 million Americans with a net worth greater than $1 million, up 16.5 percent compared to 2008, according to Capgemini.
That the ranks of high-net-worth individuals grew at a healthy clip even as more people fell into poverty should not be taken as a sign that the rich are somehow gaining at the expense of the poor, according to the NPC's Seefeldt.
The rising number of millionaires comes almost entirely from a rebound in the stock market in 2009, said Capgemini's capital market services chief, Ed Merchant. "Next year, if the market stays flat or dips, we'll see a decrease in the number of millionaires."
A decrease in the number of people living below the poverty line, however, appears less likely.