Wealthiest Americans Only Winners in Recovery, Pew Says

The U.S. economy has recovered for households with net worth of $500,000 or more, a new study shows. The recession continues for almost everyone else.

Wealthy households boosted their net worth by 21.2 percent in the aftermath of the recession, according to the study released today by the Pew Research Center. The rest of America lost 4.9 percent of household wealth from 2009 to 2011.

Pew attributed the disparity to gains during that period in the stock and bond markets, benefiting affluent households, while the housing market’s decline hit others harder. The report underscores the nation’s growing income inequality, with the top 13 percent of households recovering their losses from the 18- month recession that ended in June 2009, and the rest of the country continuing to hemorrhage wealth.

“The results are entirely sensible, but depressing,” said Richard Fry, a Pew senior research associate and co-author of the study by the Washington-based organization. “It’s a stark story of two Americas.”

Average household net worth across all income levels increased 14 percent to $338,950 from 2009 to 2011, the latest figures available from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Pew report, based on the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation, reinforces a body of evidence that the U.S. is becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.

Widening Gap

One of the most common measures of income inequality, the Gini coefficient, has risen in the last generation. The coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, with a zero indicating that all income is shared equally and a one representing complete concentration of income.

Income inequality in the U.S. grew to 0.477 in 2011, according to the Census Bureau, a 20.2 percent increase from the 0.397 measured in 1967.

The gap between rich and poor is most pronounced in the Bridgeport, Connecticut, metropolitan area, about an hour from Wall Street. The Gini of 0.535 measured there is approximately the same as the national rate for Thailand, surpassing the figures for Zimbabwe and Chile.

The U.S. Gini is equivalent to the figures for Ecuador, China and Madagascar.

The growing inequality during the past three decades is becoming a permanent fixture of the U.S. economy, according to a Brookings Institution study released last month and co-authored by Jason DeBacker, a Middle Tennessee State University economist.

‘Less Dynamic’

“From a number of different perspectives, there’s evidence that the U.S. economy has become a little less dynamic,” DeBacker said.

Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said the recession’s effects are still being felt because of the length and breadth of the downturn, the worst since the Great Depression.

Americans feel mired in a slump even though the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based National Bureau of Economic Research declared that the recession ended in June 2009, Van Horn said.

“From the standpoint of the typical American, the data used aren’t always very useful indicators,” he said.

The Pew report found that interest-earning assets such as U.S. government securities, municipal and corporate bonds boosted wealth among high-income Americans. The value of those assets, owned by 13 percent of U.S. households with net worth greater than $500,000, rose 389 percent during the two-year period to an average of $803,641.

“Very few households have those assets, but when they do -- wow!” Fry said. “The average values just skyrocketed.”

401(k) Plans

Tax-deferred 401(k) plans, owned by 65 percent of wealthy households, recorded the second-fastest growth rate of any asset class, climbing 57 percent to an average value of $119,799. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. households with net worth less than $500,000 reported owning 401(k) or thrift savings plans.

Real estate, which sparked a global financial crisis in 2008 when the housing bubble collapsed, remained a poor investment after the recession. The Pew study said average rental-property equity plunged to $370,013 in 2011, down 32 percent from the $547,462 registered in 2009. Home equity dropped 16 percent to an average of $127,290.

To contact the reporter on this story: Frank Bass in New York at fbass1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark McQuillan in Washington at mmcquillan@bloomberg.net

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