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Vladislav Ershov
Vladislav Ershov

(01 09)[][]

Barely 10 years past the end of the Great Recession in 2009, the U.S. economy is doing well on several fronts. The labor market is on a job-creating streak that has rung up more than 110 months straight of employment growth, a record for the post-World War II era. The unemployment rate in November 2019 was 3.5%, a level not seen since the 1960s. Gains on the jobs front are also reflected in household incomes, which have rebounded in recent years.

(01 09)[][]


But not all economic indicators appear promising. Household incomes have grown only modestly in this century, and household wealth has not returned to its pre-recession level. Economic inequality, whether measured through the gaps in income or wealth between richer and poorer households, continues to widen.

With periodic interruptions due to business cycle peaks and troughs, the incomes of American households overall have trended up since 1970. In 2018, the median income of U.S. households stood at $74,600.5 This was 49% higher than its level in 1970, when the median income was $50,200.6 (Incomes are expressed in 2018 dollars.)

Most of the increase in household income was achieved in the period from 1970 to 2000. In these three decades, the median income increased by 41%, to $70,800, at an annual average rate of 1.2%. From 2000 to 2018, the growth in household income slowed to an annual average rate of only 0.3%. If there had been no such slowdown and incomes had continued to increase in this century at the same rate as from 1970 to 2000, the current median U.S. household income would be about $87,000, considerably higher than its actual level of $74,600.

The shortfall in household income is attributable in part to two recessions since 2000. The first recession, lasting from March 2001 to November 2001, was relatively short-lived.7 Yet household incomes were slow to recover from the 2001 recession and it was not until 2007 that the median income was restored to about its level in 2000.

The decline in the middle-class share is not a total sign of regression. From 1971 to 2019, the share of adults in the upper-income tier increased from 14% to 20%. Meanwhile, the share in the lower-income tier increased from 25% to 29%. On balance, there was more movement up the income ladder than down the income ladder.

But middle-class incomes have not grown at the rate of upper-tier incomes. From 1970 to 2018, the median middle-class income increased from $58,100 to $86,600, a gain of 49%.10 This was considerably less than the 64% increase for upper-income households, whose median income increased from $126,100 in 1970 to $207,400 in 2018. Households in the lower-income tier experienced a gain of 43%, from $20,000 in 1970 to $28,700 in 2018. (Incomes are expressed in 2018 dollars.)

More tepid growth in the income of middle-class households and the reduction in the share of households in the middle-income tier led to a steep fall in the share of U.S. aggregate income held by the middle class. From 1970 to 2018, the share of aggregate income going to middle-class households fell from 62% to 43%. Over the same period, the share held by upper-income households increased from 29% to 48%. The share flowing to lower-income households inched down from 10% in 1970 to 9% in 2018.

A similar pattern prevailed in the 1990s, with even sharper growth in income at the top. From 1991 to 2000, the mean income of the top 5% of families grew at an annual average rate of 4.1%, compared with 2.7% for families in the highest quintile overall, and about 1% or barely more for other families.

The period from 2001 to 2010 is unique in the post-WWII era. Families in all strata experienced a loss in income in this decade, with those in the poorer strata experiencing more pronounced losses. The pattern in income growth from 2011 to 2018 is more balanced than the previous three decades, with gains more broadly shared across poorer and better-off families. Nonetheless, income growth remains tilted to the top, with families in the top 5% experiencing greater gains than other families since 2011.

Other than income, the wealth of a family is a key indicator of its financial security. Wealth, or net worth, is the value of assets owned by a family, such as a home or a savings account, minus outstanding debt, such as a mortgage or student loan. Accumulated over time, wealth is a source of retirement income, protects against short-term economic shocks, and provides security and social status for future generations.

The period from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s was beneficial for the wealth portfolios of American families overall. Housing prices more than doubled in this period, and stock values tripled.11 As a result, the median net worth of American families climbed from $94,700 in 1995 to $146,600 in 2007, a gain of 55%.12 (Figures are expressed in 2018 dollars.)

But the run up in housing prices proved to be a bubble that burst in 2006. Home prices plunged starting in 2006, triggering the Great Recession in 2007 and dragging stock prices into a steep fall as well. Consequently, the median net worth of families fell to $87,800 by 2013, a loss of 40% from the peak in 2007. As of 2016, the latest year for which data are available, the typical American family had a net worth of $101,800, still less than what it held in 1998.

The period from 1983 to 2001 was relatively prosperous for families in all income tiers, but one of rising inequality. The median wealth of middle-income families increased from $102,000 in 1983 to $144,600 in 2001, a gain of 42%. The net worth of lower-income families increased from $12,3oo in 1983 to $20,600 in 2001, up 67%. Even so, the gains for both lower- and middle-income families were outdistanced by upper-income families, whose median wealth increased by 85% over the same period, from $344,100 in 1983 to $636,000 in 2001. (Figures are expressed in 2018 dollars.)

The wealth gap between upper-income and lower- and middle-income families has grown wider this century. Upper-income families were the only income tier able to build on their wealth from 2001 to 2016, adding 33% at the median. On the other hand, middle-income families saw their median net worth shrink by 20% and lower-income families experienced a loss of 45%. As of 2016, upper-income families had 7.4 times as much wealth as middle-income families and 75 times as much wealth as lower-income families. These ratios are up from 3.4 and 28 in 1983, respectively.

The reason for this is that middle-income families are more dependent on home equity as a source of wealth than upper-income families, and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2006 had more of an impact on their net worth. Upper-income families, who derive a larger share of their wealth from financial market assets and business equity, were in a better position to benefit from a relatively quick recovery in the stock market once the recession ended.

As with the distribution of aggregate income, the share of U.S. aggregate wealth held by upper-income families is on the rise. From 1983 to 2016, the share of aggregate wealth going to upper-income families increased from 60% to 79%. Meanwhile, the share held by middle-income families has been cut nearly in half, falling from 32% to 17%. Lower-income families had only 4% of aggregate wealth in 2016, down from 7% in 1983.

This was nearly double the 45% increase in the wealth of the top 20% of families overall, a group that includes the richest 5%. Meanwhile, the net worth of families in the second quintile, one tier above the poorest 20%, increased by only 16%, from $27,700 in 1998 to $32,100 in 2007. (Figures are expressed in 2018 dollars.)

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