Unequal Recovery

You may have heard some buzz over a report suggesting that Americans are nearly back to where they were before the economic calamity of 2008. Ezra Klein and Evan Soltis set that impression straight at Wonkblog this morning:

Before the crisis, American households were worth $67.4 trillion. At the end of 2012, they were worth $66.1 trillion. That’s…pretty close. Closer than you’d think given media coverage of the economy. So are we almost done with this whole bad economy thing? Finally?

Sorry, but no. (C’mon. This is Wonkbook. You knew the news wouldn’t be that cheery.) That calculation misses three important factors. First, it doesn’t adjust for inflation. Second, it doesn’t adjust for population growth. And third and most importantly, it doesn’t adjust for inequality.

Here’s a startling number from the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s latest report on household wealth: Before making any of those adjustments, we’ve recovered 91 percent of the household wealth lost in the recession. After adjusting for inflation and population growth, the average household has only recovered 45 percent of the wealth lost in the recession.

And then there’s the inequality adjustment. The St. Louis Fed estimates that 62 percent of the wealth we’ve recovered has come in the form of higher stock prices. But about 80 percent of stock wealth is owned by families in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. The families that lost homes are not the families making money off stocks.

So in a society already riven by alarming levels of inequality, we got more of the same. And the final indignity is this: some Americans will remember the housing and financial crises and the Great Recession as an unpleasant incident in their lives. Far more will remember it–and for now, experience it–as a continuing calamity.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.