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Rich poor gap grows { January 23 2003 }

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Gap Between Rich and Poor Grows
Fed Report Details Families' Income Situations

By Albert B. Crenshaw
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 23, 2003; Page E01

The rising economic tide of the late 1990s lifted the boats of almost all American families but also sharply increased the wealth gap between the rich and the rest of society, according to a survey released yesterday by the Federal Reserve.

The benefits of the soaring stock market and the tight labor market were felt both at the top and far down the economic ladder as the median income among the poorest families jumped 14.4 percent between 1997 and 2000. The median for black families rose more than twice as fast as the median increase for all American families, which was 9.6 percent.

The net worth of most families -- the value of their assets minus their debts -- also rose strongly, with the median climbing 10.4 percent, to $86,100, over the three-year survey period. Among blacks it rose 13.1 percent, to $19,000 from $16,800.

But the net worth of the wealthiest families climbed even more. The median among those in the top 10 percent leapt to $833,600 from $492,400, while the mean soared to $2.26 million, from $1.68 million three years before. These families' median income leapt 19.3 percent, to $169,600, during the same period. The median is the midpoint for a group; the mean is the arithmetical average.

The Fed's Survey of Consumer Finances, conducted every three years since 1983, is one of the most detailed looks at the financial condition of American families. The one released yesterday was based on more than 4,000 interviews conducted in the latter half of 2001 and contains data on assets held by families at that time and on their income in the previous calendar year.

Fed officials acknowledged that much has changed in the economy since the interviews, with the stock market plunging and unemployment rising. One Fed economist involved in the study noted that employment is a key driver of income, especially at the lower end of the economic ladder. Thus it is not clear whether the gains achieved by lower-income families in the period covered by the survey remain in place.

The study examines not only income, but families' net worth, saving and investment patterns, debts, and banking habits. The data is of great interest to researchers in and out of government who study what is going on at the individual level of the economy.

Among the study's findings:

* The number of American families owning stock, either directly or through mutual funds, retirement accounts or other indirect means, topped 50 percent. This was up from about a third at the beginning of the 1990s and is the highest level ever recorded by this series of surveys, as well as by a 1963 Fed study that looked at the same issue. It may be the highest level ever, though Fed economists said data from the 1920s is limited.

* Even after their gains, median income of the poorest 20 percent of families was only $10,300, up from $9,000 three years earlier, and the net worth of these families rose only to $7,900, from $6,300. The median income for black families was $25,500, compared with $21,200 in 1997.

* Despite the gains by blacks, non-whites and Hispanics together fared much worse than whites. Hispanic families' median income declined to $24,700 from $25,600, and median net worth rose only to $11,300, from $10,700. Fed officials cautioned that the numbers might be skewed by the way Hispanics identified themselves in the survey, since their study came up with fewer Hispanics than did the 2000 U.S. census, which asked more probing questions about ethnic origin. Fed economists said it is possible that some Hispanics did not identify themselves as such, perhaps resulting in what appeared to be a larger number of lower-income Hispanics.

* Families' debt grew rapidly over the three years in the survey, but assets grew more rapidly, resulting in a decline in the ratio of debt to assets. The survey found that debt equaled 12.1 percent of assets, down from 14.3 percent in 1998. The decline is by far the largest since 1992, the survey found. The share of families with "home-secured debt" -- a mortgage, home-equity or similar loan -- rose slightly, to 44.6 percent, but rising home prices outran their increase in debt, so owners' equity rose as well. Median home equity among those with home-secured debt rose 9 percent, to $58,100, in 2001, from $53,300 in 1998.

* The share of families borrowing on credit cards rose. The increase was small, 0.3 percentage points, but it ended a decline that began in 1995 and shaved three full points off the proportion of families borrowing on plastic. In addition, credit card borrowing rose only among middle- and lower-income families; for higher-income families, it fell. The average balance among those borrowing on plastic was $1,900, unchanged from 1998.

* The number of families without a checking account declined slightly, to 12.7 percent from 13.2 percent. Asked why, 28.6 percent of those families said they didn't write enough checks to make it worthwhile, while 22.6 percent said they do not like dealing with banks.

Several private analysts cautioned against drawing overly optimistic conclusions from the Fed data.

William G. Gale of the Brookings Institution noted that while "the gains of the 1990s were real," the longer-term comparisons in the Fed report went back only to 1992. Looking back to the 1989 survey, he said, would make some of them less impressive.

"There was a big drop in wealth from 1989 to 1992 . . . and for a couple of age groups the current numbers are not that much better than they were in 1989," he said.

Gale also noted that while the survey provides data on how many families own stock, it does not show how much they own. "Although it's true that more and more people hold some stock, it's also true that the vast proportion of stock is concentrated in a relatively small portion of the population," he said.

Changes in the nation's pension system may also be causing wealth figures to appear to rise more than they have. The value of workers' rights in traditional pensions are not included in the wealth figures, in part because they are so difficult to value. But 401(k) and other types of plans are included. Thus, if a worker's company switches from a traditional pension to a 401(k), the worker might seem wealthier in the survey though in fact he has simply substituted one pension asset for another.

Some experts also found the leap in wealth among the wealthiest troubling.

Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute noted that in 1992, the net worth of the families in the top 10 percent was 13 times that of the families in the next-to-lowest 20 percent.

That ratio was about the same in 1998, he said, but by 2001 it had climbed to 22.4.

"I think the increase in inequality that's evident in this report is really pretty alarming. It should really alert those who are thinking about implementing aggressive tax policies right now," he said. "This report should tell you we've got enough inequality in the system now without aggressive tax cuts."

2003 The Washington Post Company

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