Families were making gains in income and net worth in the three years leading up to the pandemic, according to Federal Reserve data released on Monday, but wealth inequality remained stubbornly high.
Median household net worth climbed by 18 percent between 2016 and 2019, the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances showed, as median income increased by 5 percent. The survey, which began in 1989, is released every three years and is the gold standard in data about the financial circumstances of U.S. households. It offers the most up-to-date and comprehensive snapshot of everything from savings to stock ownership across demographic groups.
The figures tell a story of improving personal finances fueled by income gains, the legacy of the longest economic expansion on record that had pushed the unemployment rate to a half-century low and bolstered wages for those earning the least. Yet despite the progress, massive gaps persisted — the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent of households was still near a three-decade high.
Nearly all of the data in the 2019 survey were collected before the onset of the coronavirus. Economists worry that progress for disadvantaged workers has probably reversed in recent months as the pandemic-related shutdowns threw millions of people out of work. The crisis has especially cost minority and less-educated employees, who are more likely to work in high-interaction jobs at restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues. Many economists expect the crisis to worsen inequality as lower earners fare the worst.
“The economic downturn has not fallen equally on all Americans and those least able to shoulder the burden have been hardest hit,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a news conference earlier this month. “In particular, the high level of joblessness has been especially severe for lower wage workers in the services sector, for women and for African-Americans and Hispanics.”
The newly released 2019 data suggest that families with lower pretax incomes were catching up to their richer counterparts between 2016 and 2019. Families with high wealth, college educations, and those who identified as white and non-Hispanic — who all have higher incomes — enjoyed comparatively smaller earnings growth over the period, the Fed said.
Even so, inequality in both income and wealth remained high.
Since the survey started, families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution have gradually taken home a bigger share of the nations’ income while the share of the lower 90 percent of earners has gradually fallen. The bottom 90 percent’s income share increased slightly in 2019 — reversing a decade-long decline — but a Fed report on the data noted that the rebound happened from record lows and only took the group back to roughly its share from 2010 to 2013 share.
Affluent families have held a growing share of the nation’s wealth over recent decades, and they retained that advantage as of 2019. In 1989, the top 1 percent of wealth holders held about 30 percent of the nation’s net worth, but that had jumped to nearly 40 percent in 2016 and was little changed in the latest survey, Fed economists said.
Families in the bottom half of the wealth distribution held just 2 percent of the nation’s wealth in 2019, the Fed data and a related report showed.
The wealth measure does not include defined benefit pension plans and Social Security benefits, which are hard to value. An augmented measure that incorporates pension plans still shows that wealth at the top has still risen, but by less, according to a Fed report.
The concern now is that inequality — especially in income, which derives heavily from wages — could increase again as workers at the bottom lose jobs.
The unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in August, according to the Labor Department, but the rate was 13 percent for Black people. Likewise, the jobless rate for those with less than a high school diploma was more than twice that for adults with a bachelor’s degree or more.