The Recession’s Toll: How Middle Class Wealth Collapsed to a 40-Year Low
I’m about to share a statistic that you should remember every time you think about the Great Recession, and why the recovery has been so painstaking. It’s going to illustrate precisely how devastating the downturn was for your typical American family, and the size of the hole we’ve been trying to dig ourselves out of.
Ready? Here goes: Between 2007 and 2010, the median net worth of U.S. households fell by 47 percent, reaching its lowest level in more than forty years, adjusted for inflation. In other words, middle class wealth virtually evaporated in this country. A good chunk of the population got sucked through a financial wormhole back to the sixties.
Such are the findings of Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University who has produced a paper documenting the Chernobyl-like meltdown of asset values during the recession, and its impact on wealth inequality. To some degree, his work confirms what we’ve already more or less known; home prices, 401Ks, and the like were demolished during in the recession, and we’ve been reckoning with the consequences since. In June, the Federal Reserve released its own analysis of household finances, which found that median net worth (which just means a family’s assets minus its debts) fell closer to 39 percent from 2007 to 2010. Wolff also uses Federal Reserve data, and approaches the net worth calculation in a slightly different way. But his study is valuable in that it gives us a clear sense of which families were set back, and how far.
In the United States, wealth (again, what people own, minus their debts) tends to be much, much more concentrated than income (what people make). That’s not particularly surprising, since the rich have extra cash to stow away in bonds, stocks, and other investments, while the rest of us spend much of our money fulfilling basic needs such as housing and transportation. The rich are frequently well off to start with because they also own pieces their own businesses, which adds to their net worth tally.