During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly released Census Bureau data.
From 2009 to 2011, the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244, while the mean wealth of the 111 million households in the less affluent group fell to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896.
These wide variances were driven by the fact that the stock and bond market rallied during the 2009 to 2011 period while the housing market remained flat.
Affluent households typically have their assets concentrated in stocks and other financial holdings, while less affluent households typically have their wealth more heavily concentrated in the value of their home.
From the end of the recession in 2009 through 2011 (the last year for which Census Bureau wealth data are available), the 8 million households in the U.S. with a net worth above $836,033 saw their aggregate wealth rise by an estimated $5.6 trillion, while the 111 million households with a net worth at or below that level saw their aggregate wealth decline by an estimated $0.6 trillion.1
(The focus in this report on the upper 7% of households rather than some other share of high wealth households reflects the limits of the tabulations published by the Census Bureau. The boundaries of its wealth categories dictated the split of households analyzed in this report.)
Overall, the wealth of America’s households rose by $5 trillion, or 14%, during this period, from $35.2 trillion in 2009 to $40.2 trillion in 2011.2 Household wealth is the sum of all assets, such as a home, car, real property, a 401(k), stocks and other financial holdings, minus the sum of all debts, such as a mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and student loans.
During the period under study, the S&P 500 rose by 34% (and has since risen by an additional 26%), while the S&P/Case-Shiller home price index fell by 5%, continuing a steep slide that began with the crash of the housing market in 2006. (Housing prices have slowly started to rebound in the past year but remain 29% below their 2006 peak.)
The different performance of financial asset and housing markets from 2009 to 2011 explains virtually all of the variances in the trajectories of wealth holdings among affluent and less affluent households during this period. Among households with net worth of $500,000 or more, 65% of their wealth comes from financial holdings, such as stocks, bonds and 401(k) accounts, and 17% comes from their home. Among households with net worth of less than $500,000, just 33% of their wealth comes from financial assets and 50% comes from their home.
The Census Bureau data also indicate that among less affluent households, fewer directly owned stocks and mutual fund shares in 2011 (13%) than in 2009 (16%), meaning a smaller share enjoyed the fruits of the stock market rally. Likewise, fewer had individual retirement accounts (IRAs) or Keogh accounts (22% in 2011 versus 24% in 2009) and the same share had 401(k) or Thrift Savings Plan accounts (39% in both years). Among affluent households, there was also a decline in the share directly owning stock and mutual fund shares during this period (59% in 2011 versus 62% in 2009), but a slight increase in the share with IRAs or Keogh accounts (70% versus 68%) and a larger increase in the share with 401(k) or Thrift Savings Plan accounts (65% versus 61%).
Overall, net worth per household in the U.S. in 2011 made up nearly all the ground it had lost since 2005—$338,950 versus $340,252 in 2005, the latest pre-recession data published by the Census Bureau. (Total household wealth doubtless rose for a period after 2005 before falling precipitously during the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and rebounding since then. However, no household wealth data are available from the Census Bureau for the years between 2005 and 2009, so it is not possible to pinpoint when, or at what level, the peak in wealth per household occurred.)
Looking at the period from 2005 to 2009, Census Bureau data show that mean net worth declined by 12% for households as a whole but remained unchanged for households with a net worth of $500,000 and over. Households in that top wealth category had a mean of $1,590,075 in wealth in 2005, $1,585,441 in 2009 and $1,920,956 in 2011.3
Seth Mason, Charleston SC