How much does the average American make? These Ivy League students think it's six figures

On Wednesday, a professor tweeted that 25% of her students believed the average American salary was over six figures. One of them, she says in the tweet, believed it was over $800,000.

The average American worker actually makes closer to $51,480, based on 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and about 30.7% of households earned over $100,000 in 2020, according to Policy Advice, an insurance insights company.

The tweet ended up going viral, reaching more than 100,000 likes and nearly 20,000 retweets by Thursday afternoon. The author of the tweet, Professor Nina Strohminger, teaches legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, ranked as the No. 2 business school in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

Strohminger points out on Twitter that the lopsided answer Wharton students provided is not unique. In fact, many people underestimate the amount people make or the degree to which wealth inequality exists.

In a 2011 joint study by Harvard Business School and Duke University researchers published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, respondents were asked to map out what they believed the wealth distribution in America was. Their estimates were far off the actual distribution: Respondents believed the wealthiest 20% of America held about 59% of the wealth, when the actual number is closer to 84%.

What makes a person the "average American" is also up for debate. Often income is measured based on the total for a household, given that some people might work part-time or take time off to address family needs.

Are you middle class?: The answer may depend on more than just your income.

In the simplest sense, if your median household income for 2020 was from $50,641 to $135,042, you are considered middle class, according Pew researchers.

This kind of estimate is typically calculated by taking two-thirds of the median household income for the lower bound and twice the median for the upper bound.

Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. You can reach her @michelle_shen10 on Twitter.