Throughout the 1980s, headlines celebrated the seemingly instant riches of entertainers, ballplayers, entrepreneurs and corporate swashbucklers, people like Madonna, Michael Jordan and Ivan Boesky.

But more than just the famous and near-famous achieved million-dollar incomes during the past decade. Data from the Internal Revenue Service and other sources indicate the nation has undergone a millionaire boom, with the ranks of those earning more than $1 million a year swelling more than 14-fold between 1980 and 1990.

At the start of the decade, according to the IRS, 4,414 taxpayers reported that they had earned more than $1 million annually in adjusted gross income. By 1990, even as the recession began, the number had climbed to 63,642.

The millionaire group is the thin upper crust of the top 1 percent of all taxpayers, whose income gains during the 1980s have inspired a heated debate about wealth and class in Congress and among the presidential candidates this year.

Democratic candidate Bill Clinton has attacked the Bush and Reagan administrations' economic and tax policies, citing government studies indicating a growing gap between the richest and poorest Americans.

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved, over Republican opposition, a 10 percent surtax on incomes of more than $1 million a year, which would go to pay for a child welfare and anti-hunger program. The congressional Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that such a surtax would raise $8.2 billion over five years. President Bush vetoed a similar millionaire surtax measure in March, saying it would harm the economy. Bush's primary tax proposal has been a capital gains tax cut, which favors those who sell stocks, bonds, homes or other large assets.

IRS and Treasury Department officials caution that figures on millionaire earners come with a few caveats. For one, a million dollars isn't what it used to be. The inflation rate -- 59 percent in consumer prices from 1980 to 1990 -- pushed some taxpayers' incomes over the $1 million mark without any real increase in their purchasing power.

Further, officials suspect -- but cannot say for certain -- that the big increase is partly attributable to tax-law changes made throughout the 1980s, which artificially fattened some taxpayers' adjusted gross income figures. The most important change was the treatment of capital gains. After 1986, taxpayers were required to report 100 percent of the income from the sale of homes or stocks and bonds on their adjusted gross income, instead of 40 percent as in previous years.

"You have to treat the data very carefully," said Tom Petska, chief of the IRS's publications staff. "There are a lot of things going on."

The IRS's income figures don't reveal the number of true American millionaires -- that is, the number of people whose net worth (assets minus liabilities) exceeds $1 million. Net worth, rather than annual income, is considered a better gauge of wealth by economists because a person's income is subject to all kinds of obligations that can leave little or nothing once the bills are paid. The IRS figures, for instance, do not show accrued but unrealized capital gains on stocks and real estate, which typically account for the lion's share of a person's wealth.

"A big income doesn't make you truly rich if you're carrying $40,000 in medical-school loans, a Mercedes, a mortgage, and God knows what else," said John J. DeMarco, senior vice president of PSI Inc., a financial research firm in Tampa. "It takes a number of years for people who are pulling down big money to pile up some real assets."

PSI, which surveys consumers for major financial institutions, estimates that the number of millionaire households has shot up by more than 62 percent since 1985, from 1.3 million to 2.1 million last year.

Inflation explains part of that, but PSI said demographic and economic factors best explain the surge. The firm said more people entered the 45-plus age segment, the peak earning years, during the 1980s; some were enriched by the tripling of prices on the stock market between 1982 and 1992; and many benefited from an economic climate that was especially hospitable to entrepreneurs.

Indeed, more than one in five millionaires are business owners, according to PSI. The ranks of the newly super-rich during the 1980s included people such as Robert L. Johnson, a Washington attorney and former lobbyist who in 1979 founded Black Entertainment Television, the cable-TV channel. After struggling throughout the 1980s, pouring his own money into BET, Johnson hit the jackpot last fall when BET Holdings Inc. sold its stock to the public. On the day BET went public, Johnson's controlling stake in the company instantly became worth more than $100 million.

Though many dream of coming into such a fortune, Johnson said the reality of it is actually somewhat mundane. "After 46 years of living life to a certain style you don't change that much," he said. "You probably sleep a little better at night, but I'm not running out to buy an airplane."

On the other hand, Johnson is building a large new home off upper Connecticut Avenue in Northwest that will have a tennis court and swimming pool. Construction began before the BET stock sale.

The rich may be different, but they suffer from some of the same money anxieties as those with average incomes, said PSI's DeMarco. A 60-year-old retiree who is worth $1.2 million, for example, might live well into his eighties, "and he's probably thinking, 'Is that going to be enough to live comfortably for 20 or 25 more years?' They get worried about the future just like everyone else."

The very rich can, of course, turn for help from a growing army of money managers, trust-fund specialists and other counselors who set up shop during the past decade to handle the flood of wealth.

Among those riding the wave was Bessemer Trust, an old-line money management firm founded in 1907 to handle the riches of turn-of-the-century industrialists. The firm managed $3.5 billion in 1985, but its asset base had grown to $8.5 billion as of last year, said David G. Curry, senior vice president of Bessemer's Washington office. "Much of it is newly created wealth, such as the sale of businesses," Curry said. "The 1980s has driven this, as you might expect."

More high-income people apparently doesn't mean more generosity, however. As the number of people with million-dollar incomes soared, their charitable contributions, on average, declined during the 1980s, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel Trust for Philanthropy (AAFRC), a nonprofit group based in New York.

In 1980, the average contribution by those with incomes over $1 million was $207,089, the AAFRC said. By 1989, the average was $83,929, a 59 percent drop. Total charitable contributions by the wealthy increased but at a much slower pace than the growth in the number of new millionaires.

Virginia Hodgkinson, research director of Independent Sector, an organization of nonprofit groups in Washington, said the changing nature of high-income households, rather than real stinginess, may explain the figures. Specifically, she said many of those who received more than $1 million a year during the 1980s were generally younger, "newer" wealthy; traditional big-money donors tend to be those who reach their prime giving years later in life, she said.

"My question is, is {this income} a form of permanent wealth" or a one-shot windfall, Hodgkinson said. "A good proportion of them will start giving in time if their wealth lasts."

But Gabriel Rudney, an AAFRC board member and former Treasury official who has studied charitable giving, said the figures were especially disappointing given that high-income people benefited from some tax code changes during the 1980s, such as the reduction in the top tax rate from 70 percent to 31 percent, which permitted them to keep more of their income.

"We give them incentives and they still react this way," he said. "You have to educate people. Despite the fact that they want to accumulate and control wealth, they ought to consider that they owe something to their communities."