For years, social media posts have claimed that half of the people in America make less than $35,000 a year. Based on the most recent data we could find, that did not appear to be true, at least as of this writing in May 2023. Based on U.S. government data, it was true in 2019 and 2020, however.
The most notable post we found asserting the claim was a tweet posted on Nov. 28, 2021, that said the reason why Americans weren't having children or buying homes as much as they used to was because half of the country earned less than $35,000:
Half of America makes less than 35k.
Stop asking us why we're not having children. Stop asking us why we're not buying homes. Stop asking us why we can't save. Stop asking why we don't get a better job.
Ask corporations why they're paying their employees low wages.
— Alexis Cardarella (@thatquietsong) November 28, 2021
In May 2023, another Twitter user posted a screenshot of the original tweet, saying the account had "nailed it":
— Fuck You I Quit (@fuckyouiquit) May 16, 2023
The original Twitter post continued to spread on other social media platforms. For example, we found a Reddit post from November 2022 about the claim, as well as TikTok posts in September 2022, October 2022, and May 2023. We also found unrelated posts making the claim on Facebook in May 2023.
Here's what we know: The accuracy of the claim depends on the years being discussed.
When we reached out to the account that originally posted the claim, that user sent us articles such as a 2020 Newsweek article stating that half of American workers made less than $35,000 in 2019. The article relied on the Social Security Administration's (SSA) annual wage statistics as its source.
The SSA provides data on wage statistics, including average and median net compensation for American workers. Net compensation is defined by the SSA as wages, tips, and the like subject to federal income taxes, as reported by employers on W-2s. In general, "median net compensation" represents the exact middle of the range of compensation figures, with half the population earning more than the median and half earning less. That's as compared to "average net compensation," which is calculated by dividing the total amount for all earners by the number of earners counted.
For 2019, according to the SSA, the median net compensation for American workers was indeed less than $35,000 — it was $34,248.45, to be precise. That figure rose very slightly to 34,612.04 in 2020, but remained under $35,000.
In 2021, the median net compensation increased to $37,586.03. Complete data for 2022 and 2023 was not available at the time of publication.
For reference, the 2021 U.S. Health and Human Service poverty guidelines stated that a U.S. family of six needed to make more than $35,580 to be above the federal poverty line. (In 2023, an U.S. family of five needed to make more than $35,140 to be above the federal poverty line. In 2019, a U.S. family of five needed to make more than $30,170 to be above the federal poverty line.)
In September 2022, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report on 2021 U.S. income. It's the most recent data available. However, the report focused on household income, and did not provide detailed information on how much individual earners made.
According to the report, 9.3% of American households across all races made under $15,000; 8.1% of American households made $15,000 to $24,999; and 7.8% of Americans made $25,000 to $34,999. Added together, 25.2% of American households across all races made under $35,000 in 2021.
Also, according to that 2022 U.S. Census Bureau report, there was no racial group in which half the households made less than $35,000. But the racial group that came closest to that was Black Americans.
The report found 37.6% of Black households made under $35,000 in 2021; 35.3% of American Indian and Alaska Native households made less than $35,000; 27.9% of households who were two or more races; 23.4% of white households; and 19.1% of Asian households, according to the report. (Some 28.9% of Hispanic households of any race made less than $35,000 in 2021, and at the time of this writing, the census defined Hispanic as an ethnicity, not a race.)