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Federal Report Shows that Middle-class Households Have Lost 40% of their Worth in Last Three Years

graph and cash

According to government data released yesterday, the last three years of a stagnant economy have wiped out almost two decades of American wealth. The Federal Reserve reports that the median net worth of families fell from $126,400 in 2007 to $77,300 in 2010 – a drop of almost 40%.

Considering the recession set Americans back two decades, many economists predict recovery is a long way to come. “It’s hard to overstate how serious the collapse in the economy was,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “We were in free fall.”

The middle class suffered the greatest damage from the recent recession. Most affected was the value of real assets such as stocks, homes, and automobiles. By contrast, the wealthiest families’ median net worth rose slightly.

American families have had to re-balance their budgets but have found it difficult to overcome the damage. A bit of good news from the report is that fewer families are carrying credit card balances and debt. Median credit card balances dropped 16% in that same period of time.

But other factors have led the median level of family debt unchanged. More families now have education loans and 11% said they are at least 60 days late paying bills. That’s up from 7% in 2007. And in spite of taking measures to cut corners, the percentage of families with debts greater than 40 % of their income remained the same.

Much of the evaporation of middle income is due to the implosion of the housing market. The median value of Americans’ stake in their homes fell by 42 % between 2007 and 2010, to $55,000. Poor families saw the largest loss of wealth from the drop in real estate prices but it is the middle class that relies the most on housing as the largest part of their net worth. For many, their home accounts for more than half of their assets.

Rakesh Kochhar, associate director of research at the Pew Hispanic Center, calls this phenomenon the “reverse wealth effect.” As consumers watched the value of their homes rise during the boom, they grew confident to spend more money even if they did not actually cash in on the gains. Now, the declining housing market has made many Americans cautious of spending even if their losses are just on paper.

Kochhar’s research released last year revealed a dramatic drop in household wealth during the recession, particularly among minorities. That study found record-high disparities between whites’ wealth and that of blacks and Hispanics. “It was turning the clock back quite a bit,” said Kochhar.

Although there have been some signs of a recovering economy with housing prices beginning to stabilize, the report cautions that those improvements are not enough to offset the losses from the recent recession. “Recovery from the so-called Great Recession has also been particularly slow,” the report said.

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