Forget designer handbags, diamond watches or even high-end sports cars. It turns out the ultimate luxury good of the past 10 years has been the economic recovery itself.
Indeed, according to numbers put together by researchers at the Federal Reserve, the top 10 percent of working-age households were the only ones who, adjusted for inflation, were richer on average in 2016 than they were in 2007. Everyone else was somewhere between 17 percent to 35 percent poorer than they’d been almost a decade before.
So why hasn’t the recovery, which has seen housing prices rebound by 26 percent and stocks by 160 percent from their post-crisis lows, reached less exclusive income groups, too?
Well, the question answers itself: Because they don’t own as many houses or stocks as they used to. Part of that, of course, is due to the fact that middle-class families were more likely to have lost their homes during the crash — that’s why their wealth fell further than anyone else’s in the years immediately after — but not as much as you might think.
The bigger factor, the researchers found, is that tighter lending standards have made it harder for people to buy a home in the first place. Consider this: Between 2007 and 2016, homeownership fell 12 percentage points among the middle class, 9 percentage points of which was due to people who had never owned a home in the past never buying one during that time. The housing crash, in other words, turned more people into renters, so the housing comeback hasn’t helped nearly as many people as had been hurt.
It’s the same story with stocks. The bottom 60 percent of households just never owned that many to begin with, but they own even less today. Some of that might be that the Great Recession has scared them off investing, some of it that the not-so-great recovery hasn’t left them with enough money to put into markets even if they wanted to, but a big part of it, according to the researchers, is simply that fewer people have access to 401(k)s than before. They’re either out of work, or can’t find a full-time job that offers those kind of benefits. The result is that a lot of middle-class households have missed out on what’s been one of the great bull markets the past nine years.
Which is to say this is a case where what you don’t do can hurt you. The researchers estimate the bottom 90 percent would have been 50 percent to 60 percent richer in 2016 if they had owned as many homes and stocks as they had in 2007.
So if you were wondering why people are still so angry so long after the crash, well, this is why. Elites might be in a self-congratulatory mood because they feel like they saved the system, but that’s really only true for themselves. Everyone else is still struggling just to get back to where they were before 2008, and they aren’t particularly close. Not that the government is doing much to help. To take one rather pertinent example, President Donald Trump’s Treasury Department pulled the plug on the “myRA” plans that had begun under President Barack Obama — offering low-risk savings plans to people who couldn’t get them at work — because spending 0.0003 percent of the government’s budget on trying to do something about the savings inequality that’s leaving people further and further behind each year was apparently too much. Giving corporations, who already had record-high profits as a share of the economy, the bulk of the GOP’s $1.5 trillion in tax cuts was more important.
But don’t worry, I’m sure the recovery will trickle down.
Matt O’Brien is a reporter for The Washington Post’s Wonkblog covering economic affairs. He was previously a senior associate editor at Atlantic magazine.
Follow BDN Editorial & Opinion on Facebook for the latest opinions on the issues of the day in Maine.