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The Bay Area's 1 percent: Here's how much you'd need to make

Where in the Bay Area is money is talking loudest

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With the two principle candidates for U.S. president meeting in their first debate tonight, the chief topic of interest, as is almost always the case with national politics, will be money: Which communities are making it, which aren’t, and why?

As the New York Times pointed out over the weekend, wrangling over taxes for America’s top one percent of earners is tricky business, because precisely how rich you have to be to break into that one percent may vary wildly from city to city.

In San Francisco, for example, the Economic Policy Institute (a Washington DC think tank concerned with labor issues) estimates that you need to bring in nearly $895,000/year for single digit status. Whereas in Alameda County the top one percent are earning around $512,000 and up.

Marin County is, of course, where the Bay Area’s fiscal crème de la crème are most likely to congregate, coming in number eight nationwide in the rankings of wealthiest counties. Up there, a one percent income is at least $1.13 million/year. San Mateo County comes in a close number nine at $1.12 million. And in Santa Clara County, it’s $979,000.

CNN Money calculates that you need earn only $450,000/year to break into the top one percent nationally. But of course, $450,000 goes a lot further in some places than others. As odd as it sounds, such figures are not necessarily the best measure of wealth in a place like the Bay Area. (Although $450K earners are exactly hurting around here, either.)

Assessment is even more fraught than the Times or CNN may think, though; statistics vary with who you ask. The California Budget & Policy Center, for example, calculates that the average one percent household in the larger San Francisco-San Mateo-Redwood City region makes a whopping $3.5 million plus.

Why the jaw-dropping discrepancy? Well, another lesson we learn every election year (in the form of presidential polling) is that statistics aren’t just numbers. Statistics are also methodologies.

A group like EPI may extrapolate economic data based on the census. But the Budget and Policy Center feels "census data are not appropriate for extrapolating incomes at the very top." Because the census has to deal with so many people, they tend to stop counting your money at a certain point. For them, it’s a matter of diminishing returns beyond a particular income level.

CBPC consulted tax records. But this isn’t necessarily a perfect system either, because that data isn’t really complete. Researchers applied formulas to "impute" the income level of individuals based on the macro information available. The difference in San Francisco one percenters really adds up.

The lesson: Statistics about our cities are rarely hard facts. Most of the time, they’re more like guideposts.

That the one percent in San Francisco are wealthier than the one percent in Contra Costa County (who in turn may be much wealthier than the one percent in some entire states) we can be pretty certain. Figuring out by how much, however, will always be a moving target.