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Average household wealth, 1989-2019


I crunched a bunch of numbers from the Federal Reserve regarding changes in household wealth (This is assets minus liabilities). The data are pretty revealing. Three things to keep in mind:

(1) All these numbers are averages within each cohort. This can be deceptive, in that people with a net worth of less than $100K can be in the same cohort as people with a seven-figure net worth (This describes the current state of the 50th-90th percentile numbers for example).

(2) All figures are in constant, 2019 dollars, based on the data from the fourth quarter of each calendar year.

(3) The 2009 figures reflect the effects of the Great Recession, which had just ended, statistically speaking.

First, let’s look at how things have gone for the 1% over the past 30 years:

Average household wealth in the top percentile of US households: (2019$):

1989: $10,808,190

1999: $17,882,579

2009: $17,124,573

2019: $28,172,628

That’s a 160.7% increase in real terms over the past three decades (Note that the 1980s featured a big run-up in wealth at the top end. Unfortunately this data set doesn’t go back prior to 1989).

How about the lower upper class, where so many pundits, law professors, and other heroic brain toilers perform their phony baloney socially critical jobs?

Average household wealth in the 90th to 99th percentile: (2019$)

1989: $1,701,509

1999: $2,048,123

2009: $2,377,133

2019: $3,202,177

That’s an 88.2% increase for you scoring at home. (I kinda miss Keith Olbermann, or at least the ESPN version).

What about the top half of the real middle class and the vast expanse of the actual upper middle class?

Average household wealth in the 50th to 90th percentile: (2019$)

1989: $397,899

1999: $493,744

2009: $478,456

2019: $617,807

That’s a 55.3% increase. Note that in this cohort a big percentage of the increase is accounted for by equity in primary residences, which is a somewhat complicated form of wealth, economically speaking (Recall as well the huge spread between the economic circumstances at the bottom and top of this percentile range).

Finally, let’s drink to the hard-working people.

Average household wealth of the bottom 50% of households (This is currently 165,000,000 people, i.e., slightly less than the combined total populations of France, Italy, and Spain. Again 2019$):

1989: $35,560

1999: $42,348

2009: $10,410

2019: $24,261.

That’s a 42.7% decline since 1999, and a 31.8% decline over the past 30 years. (That 2009 number is actually quite a bit better than the post-Great Recession low point, which was the second quarter of 2011, when average household wealth for the entire bottom half of the US population was all the way down to about $4,000 per household).

Despite a lot of talk about the general subject, there still isn’t nearly enough focus on what a complete disaster, in both comparative and absolute terms, the New Gilded Age has been for pretty much everybody in the lower half of the middle class — let alone the working class and the poor. Wealth inequality, in an age of skyrocketing costs for essential things like medical care, housing, and education, needs to be something that progressives hammer away at ceaselessly. These numbers are a huge public scandal, or should be, in an age with too many of those to choose from.

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