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U.S. middle class gets richer, but wealthy do even better
WASHINGTON -- 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 percent last year from 2013 to $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 upended the economy nearly a decade ago.
The figures echo data released earlier this month from the Census Bureau, which also showed middle-class incomes rising. Since 2015, the economic recovery's benefits have been spread broadly, to nearly all income levels and racial and ethnic groups. But those gains arrived after the first five years of the recovery, when higher-earning households reaped most of the benefits. A low and falling unemployment rate has helped push up pay, while rising home prices have restored some wealth to middle-income families.
Even with the improvement, the Fed's report, known as the Survey of Consumer Finances, 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.
"You're seeing a continuing pulling apart in the wealth and income data," said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.
It also points to why so many Americans remain frustrated with the economy: On many measures, most families still haven't recovered fully from the 2008-2009 downturn. In fact, the median measures for wealth and income still trail their 2001 levels.
Lael Brainard, a Fed policymaker, raised concerns in a speech Tuesday that long-running inequalities may hobble U.S. 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 even as median net worth climbed 16 percent, average net worth rose more quickly, by 26 percent to $692,100. Those differences between the median and average figures mostly reflect stronger gains at the top of the income scale. Net worth includes the value of housing, stocks, mutual funds and other savings minus mortgages and other debts.
Black and Hispanic families reported large wealth gains, but wealth gaps along racial lines barely narrowed. Median wealth for an African-American family was $17,600 last year, up 29 percent from 2013. That's a much bigger gain than the 17 percent increase for whites.
Yet median wealth for white families last year was $171,000, ten times that for blacks and roughly eight times that for Latinos.
Median wealth for the richest 10 percent of all families jumped 40 percent in the past three years to $1.63 million.
The 1 percent richest families now hold nearly 39 percent of U.S. wealth, up from 36.3 percent in 2013, the Fed said. The bottom 90 percent of families now own just 22.8 percent of the nation's wealth, down from 33.2 percent in 1989.
Similar patterns appear in the report's section on incomes. Latino families reported a 15 percent gain in median income to $38,500, while median income for African-Americans rose 10 percent to $35,400. Median incomes for whites rose only 6 percent, but were still much higher at $61,200.
One reason more families are regaining some wealth is home prices have risen steadily since 2012. Average housing wealth -- the value of a home, minus mortgages and other debt -- rose 20 percent last year from 2016. That followed a slight drop in home values in the previous three years.
Meanwhile, for those Americans who own stocks, the average value of their portfolios increased 23.4 percent from 2013 to 2016. That followed an 18.2 percent increase in the preceding three years, when average home values were falling.
For the 10 percent richest Americans, the average value of their stock holdings jumped nearly 37 percent to $1.37 million.
The Fed also broke down its measures by where families live. For families living in cities, median income increased 10 percent, while those outside cities saw an increase of just 2 percent.
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