Net Worth Of Middle Class Takes A Bath

Home may still be where the hearth is but it’s also where the wealth has been and gone -- at least for the middle class -- dispiriting figures released by the Federal Reserve yesterday indicate. Primarily due to plunging home values, the net worth of the median family in America from 2007 to 2009 fell to the level it was at in the early ’90s –- a time when Mark Zuckerberg was being driven to play dates and several years before the word “McMansions” appeared in the New York Times for the first time in a piece Benjamin Cheever wrote about “almost” buying one a few miles away from Zuckerberg’s Westchester County hometown. 

The world has greatly changed since those days, as the aspirations of the middle class have been transformed along with its more tenuous foothold on the American Dream. Seventy-five percent of the drop in net worth is attributed to the collapse of the housing market, although median family income also fell -- to $45,800 in 2010 from $49,600 in 2007 -- reports Binyamin Appelbaum in the New York Times. But homeowners’ median equity plummeted to $75,000 in 2010 from $110,000 three years earlier, Kristina Peterson reports in the Wall Street Journal.

“Homes are the single largest asset for many families, and they represent a particularly large share of wealth for the middle class,” points out WNYC’s Jacob Goldstein. “What's more, homes tend to be highly leveraged. People borrow lots of money to buy them. That means huge gains when prices rise -- and massive losses when they fall.”

The “brutal” data show that “middle-class families faced the brunt of the declines with those in the 60th to 80th percentile of income seeing a 40.4% drop in net worth from $215,700 to $128,600, reports Forbes’ Halah Touryalai. “Families with a net income in the 20th to 39.9th percentile of income saw a 35.4% drop in net worth from $39,600 to $25,600.”

Data in the triennial Survey of Consumer Financescover the 2007 – 2009 period but shed light on “problems that continue to slow the pace of the economic recovery,” Appelbaum writes.

“It fills in details to a picture that we already knew was quite ugly, and these details very much underscore that,” according to Jared Bernstein, an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities who served as an adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden. “It makes clear how devastating this has been for the middle class.” 

The upside, if you’re in the marketing or sales business, is that consumer spending has “remained surprisingly resilient,” fueled by less saving and more debt. But middle class folks aren’t feeling particularly rosy about what the future may hold.

“In 2010, just over 35% of families said they did not ‘have a good idea of what their income would be for the next year,’ up from 31.4% in 2007,” Peterson writes. That uncertainly no doubt extends to the housing market, too, which has remained stagnant here (as well as in the United Kingdom, as this piece in the Financial Times today indicates). That, in word, is a bummer. It’s a vicious circle.

“The U.S. housing market will remain stagnant unless consumer confidence improves,” the Deseret News’ Joey Ferguson reported last week after viewing an online presentation on market conditions by economists from the Standard & Poor’s Indices and Capital IQ divisions. “That will happen only with an increased pace in job creation,” they felt. 

Starbucks may be tapping “factories in the U.S., not China,” to produce a new line mugs that go on sale in retail outlets today, as Stephanie Strom reports in the New York Times today, but the preponderance of news articles we see are tepid, at best, about job creation. 

“Hiring prospects have improved slightly in the United States and other major economies but companies are only adding workers when they have to, according to a survey by Manpower Group, the global employment services giant,” writes Reuters’ Nick Zieminski. “The net employment outlook, which measures the difference between those adding jobs and those cutting them, rose to a seasonally adjusted plus-11, up from plus-10 in the previous quarter.”

Adding to the feeling that we’re jogging in place rather than sprinting forward, Fannie Mae's May 2012 National Housing Survey released last week found that “the positive trends in consumer attitudes observed since early fall 2011 appear to be reaching a plateau.” 

Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago president Charles Evans tells Bloomberg News’ Betty Liu that he would support a variety of stimulus measures “to generate faster job growth” in a segment airing today on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop,” Aki Ito reports.

Witold Rybczynski proclaimed the death of McMansions in Slate a year ago. Perhaps even more telling of where the American psyche may be, however, is the rising interest we’re seeing in “tiny homes.” 

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