Ongoing economic reports strive to explain who thrives and who struggles in the U.S. economy as a step toward spreading economic success.
A colleague sent me a link to a new report about American families that I’d like to share with you. It’s from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and it’s called “The Demographics of Wealth.”
That’s a topic that matters around here, where lines between rich and poor have sharpened in King County, and Seattle is increasingly becoming a city of well-off people.
Our community reflects the country’s growing economic inequality.
The St. Louis Fed created its Center for Household Financial Stability two years ago to study issues related to family finances and “to research and strengthen the balance sheets of struggling American families.”
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The series of essays in this latest report examine how age, education and race separate people at the top of the economy from the majority who are struggling. The more we understand how those factors affect family wealth, the better we can help more families thrive, if that’s what we choose to do.
The center studied more than 40,000 families in detail, looking at income and wealth using data gathered by the Fed from 1989 to 2013. The researchers also collected information that helps make sense of that data, going beyond the usual practice of relying on economic statistics to tell the whole story.
They looked at families where the head of household was black, Hispanic, white or Asian, and divided them into three age clusters, under 40, 40-61 and 62 or older. They were also sorted by education level.
Researchers identified three main groups: thrivers, middle class and stragglers.
Thrivers, about 24 percent of all U.S. families in 2013, owned 67 percent of the economy’s wealth. They were usually headed by someone middle-aged or older, white or Asian and with a college or professional degree.
Seventy-six percent of families were classified as struggling (including middle-class families who make up 44 percent of that group, with stragglers accounting for the rest). That group includes a lot of families that are younger, less educated and black or Hispanic. Struggling families own 33 percent of the nation’s wealth.
The order of the four racial groups by median family wealth has stayed the same since 1989: white, Asian, Hispanic, black.
The one notable change since 1989 are the gains being made by Asian Americans, whose income has surpassed that of white families, and who are expected to surpass white median wealth in the near future.
All of the group differences in income and family wealth mean something for the country going forward. Another report from the Fed in June concluded, “the middle class may be under more pressure than you think.” It’s getting harder for many people to stay in or move up to the middle class. Here are some of the trends the analysis shows:
“More than anyone else, better-educated people are living longer, healthier lives, increasing their earning power and wealth accumulation;
“The job-market returns to higher education continue to increase, while better financial decision-making by better-educated people greatly enhances their wealth accumulation; and
“The legacies of discrimination and other deeply rooted factors that contribute to low levels of educational attainment by blacks and Hispanics have slowed their economic and financial advances.”
Education and age made a difference, but didn’t account for all of the gap in income and wealth between white and Asian families and black and Hispanic families.
When researchers were calculating median income for families in 1989, white and Asian family household heads with a high-school diploma fell into the same income category as black or Hispanic families headed by a college graduate. That’s still true, the Fed report says.
The authors expect many forms of past and present bias play a role in the gap along with a list of other factors that were beyond the scope of the studies. The center will continue mining the data and issuing reports. They’ll refine our understanding of family economics, but we know enough already to see the importance of strengthening families. No good can come from having a majority of families struggling economically.
More access to early education will help. So will less employment discrimination and higher pay levels that allow for investing in financial and business assets.