Mon | Dec 11, 2017

US middle class gets richer, but wealthy do even better

Published:Friday | September 29, 2017 | 12:00 AM
US money

Most American families grew richer between 2013 and 2016, but the wealthiest households pulled even further ahead, worsening the nation's massive disparities in wealth and income.

The median net worth of all American families rose 16 per cent last year from 2013 to US$97,300, according to a Federal Reserve survey released Wednesday. The median is the point where half of families fall below and half above. That's the first gain for middle class households since the recession began nearly a decade ago.

The figures echo recent data released earlier this month from the Census Bureau that also showed middle-class incomes rising. For roughly the first five years of the economic recovery that began in 2009, higher-earning households reaped most of the gain. But in 2015 and 2016, the low and falling unemployment rate has helped push up pay at all income levels. Rising home prices have also restored some wealth to middle-income families.

But the Fed's report, known as the Survey of Consumer Finances, starkly illustrates the depth of the nation's wealth and income gaps. The disparities exist along lines of income, race and ethnicity, and between cities and rural dwellers.

Lael Brainard, a Fed policymaker, raised concerns in a speech Tuesday that long-running inequalities may hobble US economic growth. Greater concentrations of wealth and income could slow consumer spending, which accounts for about two-thirds of economic activity, because richer households typically save a larger proportion of a pay raise or other income gain than middle- and lower-income ones do.

The Fed's survey found that even as median household wealth rose, average net worth rose more quickly, by 26 per cent to US$692,100. Those differences between the median and average figures mostly reflect stronger gains at the top of the income scale.

And even as black and Hispanic families reported large wealth gains, wealth gaps along racial lines barely narrowed. Median wealth for an African-American family was US$17,600 last year, up 29 per cent from 2013. That's a much bigger gain than the 17 per cent increase for whites.

Yet median wealth for white families was US$171,000, still ten times that for blacks and roughly eight times that for Latinos.

Median wealth for the richest 10 per cent of all families jumped 40 per cent in the past three years, to US$1.63 million. That's nearly 17 times higher than the figure for typical families.

That bigger gain by the wealthiest families left them with a greater share. The 1 per cent richest families now hold nearly 39 per cent of US wealth, up from 36.3 per cent in 2013, the Fed said. The bottom 90 per cent of families now own just 22.8 per cent of the nation's wealth, down from 33.2 per cent from 1989.

- AP