Incomes are up, the stock market is soaring and home prices in the United States have largely recovered from the mortgage meltdown. But Americans still haven't regained all the wealth they lost and, on the whole, are worse off than in 1998.
The Federal Reserve has just released its Survey of Consumer Finances, which it carries out every three years. This year's report tells a stubbornly grim tale. Median net worth for all families, measured in 2016 dollars, dropped 8 per cent since 1998. The survey's definition of families includes single people and childless couples and is equivalent to how other government surveys define households. In addition:
• The lowest income families - the bottom fifth - saw their net worth fall 22 per cent
• Hardest hit is the working class, the second-lowest income tier, whose net worth declined 34 per cent
• Families in the middle, with incomes from US$43,501 to $69,500, treaded water, up just 3.5 per cent
• For the top 10 per cent, net worth rose 146 per cent since 1998. In 2013, the last time the survey was done, net worth for the top 10 per cent had risen about 75 per cent since 1998.
Net worth is what people own - their houses, cars, retirement and savings accounts - minus what they owe in mortgages, student loans, credit cards and car loans. An analysis of the 2016 data shows that people in the lowest two income bands are getting squeezed from both ends.
Americans own less and owe more
Median debt for all families increased by 25 per cent since 1998 but rose much more sharply for the lower and working classes. Debt was up 57 per cent for those with incomes below $25,300 and up 58 per cent for those with incomes between $25,301 and $43,500. By contrast, debt for the middle class - households with incomes from $43,501 to $69,500 - rose 12.5 per cent.
The top 10 per cent, those with incomes above $177,100, saw a surge in debt as well. The median amount they owed rose 61 per cent - but the value of their assets more than doubled. Contrast that with the lower class, who saw the median value of their assets slide by 47 per cent, and the working class, whose asset value declined 27 per cent.
Homeownership dropped in all income categories but most steeply in the bottom three. The homeownership rate fell 11 per cent for the lower class, 7 per cent for the working class and 5 per cent for the middle class. Among the highest-earning families, the decline was less than 2 per cent. The value of their homes, though, rose 66 per cent, compared with 25 per cent overall.
Why net worth matters
The decline in wealth actually started long before the recession, says sociologist Fabian Pfeffer, research assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. The housing bubble, which peaked in 2007, obscured the fact that many Americans had been losing ground since the 1980s, he says.
Economists can debate precisely why so many people have taken it in the teeth in recent decades, but it is clear that years of stagnant or dropping incomes have taken a toll on their ability to get ahead.
The Fed survey shows the median family income before taxes peaked in 2004; by 2013, it had fallen more than 12 per cent. Incomes have since recovered somewhat but are still 4 per cent lower than that high-water mark.
Less income means less money to invest in homes, educations and retirement. Less investment leads to less wealth. Less wealth means being less able to help the next generation get started with education and down payments. And so the gap widens.
If all boats were rising, tax cuts that benefit mostly the affluent wouldn't be a crisis. Under current circumstances, though, too many people are sinking or barely staying afloat. Lawmakers should focus their concern on those folks, not the ones in the yachts.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, which shares its columns with Associated Press, a certified financial planner and author of Your Credit Score