Even as Americans Grew Richer, Inequality Persisted

American families shored up their savings substantially between 2016 and 2019, according to Federal Reserve data released on Monday, but wealth inequality remained stubbornly high — and that was before the coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Median net worth climbed by 18 percent in those three years, the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances showed, as median family income increased by 5 percent. The survey, which began in 1989, is released every three years and is the gold standard in data about the financial circumstances of households. It offers the most up-to-date and comprehensive snapshot of everything from savings to stock ownership across demographic groups.

The figures tell a story of improving personal finances fueled by income gains and rising home prices, the legacy of the longest U.S. economic expansion on record, one that had pushed the unemployment rate to a half-century low and bolstered wages for those earning the least. Yet many Americans had less in savings than they did before the last recession a decade ago and yawning gaps persisted — the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of households was still near a three-decade high.

Nearly all of the data in the 2019 survey were collected before the onset of the coronavirus. Economists worry that progress for disadvantaged workers has probably reversed in recent months as the pandemic-related shutdowns threw millions of people out of work. The crisis has especially cost minority and less-educated employees, who are more likely to work in high-interaction jobs at restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. Inequality appears to be poised to widen as lower earners fare the worst.

Coronavirus wiped it all away. Her clients no longer wanted outsiders coming to their homes, meaning Ms. Bernier was out of work. The extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits from the federal government kept her afloat for a while. But that supplement ended in July, and she isn’t sure how she will get by without it. The bill collectors that she thought she had shaken are already hounding her again.

“So here I am stuck without a job again and floundering, trying to figure out what my next career will be,” she said.

The newly released data suggest that families with lower pretax incomes, like Ms. Bernier’s, were catching up to their richer counterparts between 2016 and 2019. The bottom 90 percent of the income distribution actually saw its share of overall earnings increase slightly in 2019 — reversing a decade-long decline. Even so, a Fed analysis noted that the rebound happened from record lows.

And even at a moment when tighter labor markets were translating into more broadly shared prosperity, divides in wealth — savings amassed over time, rather than the money a family earns in a given year — remained high.

In 1989, the top 1 percent of wealth holders held about 30 percent of the nation’s net worth. That had jumped to nearly 40 percent in 2016 and was little changed in the latest survey, Fed economists said.

While wealth did climb slightly for those in the bottom half of the distribution, the poorer half of American families held just about 1 percent of the nation’s savings in 2019, the Fed data and a related report showed.

The survey’s overall wealth measure does not include defined benefit pension plans and Social Security benefits, which are hard to value. An augmented measure that incorporates pension plans shows that the wealth share at the top has still risen, but by less, according to a Fed report.

Source Article