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Pandemic Boosts American Household Wealth

American families saw the largest jump in their wealth on record between 2019 and 2022, according to Federal Reserve data released on Wednesday, as rising stock indexes, climbing home prices and repeated rounds of government stimulus left people’s finances healthier.

Median net worth climbed 37 percent over those three years after adjusting for inflation, the Fed’s Survey of Consumer Finances showed — the biggest jump in records stretching back to 1989. At the same time, median family income increased 3 percent between 2018 and 2021 after subtracting out price increases.

While income gains were most pronounced for the affluent, the data showed clearly that Americans made nearly across-the-board financial progress in the three years that include the pandemic. Savings rose. Credit card balances fell. Retirement accounts swelled.

Other data, from both government and private-sector sources, hinted at those gains. But the Fed report, which is released every three years, is considered the gold standard in data about the financial circumstances of households. It offers the most comprehensive snapshot of everything from savings to stock ownership across racial, wealth and age groups.

This is the first time the Fed report has been released since the onset of the coronavirus, and it offers a sense of how families fared during a tumultuous economic period. People lost jobs in mass numbers in early 2020, and the government tried to soften the blow with multiple relief packages.

More recently, the job market has been booming, with very low unemployment and rapid wage growth that has helped to bolster incomes. At the same time, rapid inflation has eroded some of the gains by making everyday life more expensive.

Without adjusting for inflation, median income would have risen 20 percent, for instance, based on the report released Wednesday.

The financial progress, particularly for poorer families, is especially remarkable when compared with the aftermath of the last recession, which lasted from 2007 to 2009. It took years for household wealth to rebound fully after that crisis, and for some families it never did.

Income climbed across all groups between 2019 and 2022, though gains were biggest toward the top — meaning that income inequality widened.

That made for a big difference between median income — the number at the midpoint among all households — and the average, which tallies all earnings and divides them by the number of households. Average income climbed 15 percent, one of the largest three-year pops on record.

Wealth inequality was more complicated. Because the rich hold such a large share of financial assets in America, wealth gaps tend to grow in absolute terms when stocks, bonds and houses are climbing in price. True to that, wealth climbed much more in dollar terms for rich families.

But in the three years covered by the survey, growth in wealth was actually the largest in percentage terms for poorer families. People in the bottom quarter had a net worth of $3,500 in 2022, up from $400 in 2019. Among families in the top 10 percent, median net worth climbed to $3.79 million, up from $3.01 million three years earlier.

Because of the way the data is measured, it is difficult to break out just how much pandemic-related payments would have mattered to the figures. To the extent that families saved one-time checks and other help they received during the pandemic, those would have been included in the measures of net worth.

Families were also still receiving some pandemic payments when the income measures were collected in 2021, which means that things like enhanced unemployment insurance probably factored into the data.

Some Americans appear to have taken advantage of their improved financial positions to invest in stocks for the first time: 21 percent of families owned stocks directly in 2022, up from 15 percent in 2019, the largest change on record. Many of those new stock owners appear to have been relatively small investors, likely reflecting at least in part Americans’ enthusiasm for “meme stocks” like GameStop during the pandemic.

The Fed’s newly released figures show that significant gaps in income and wealth persist across racial groups, although Black and Hispanic families saw the largest percentage gains in net worth during the pandemic period.

Black families’ median net worth climbed 60 percent, to $44,900. That was a bigger jump than the 31 percent increase for white families, which lifted their household wealth to $285,000. Hispanic families saw a 47 percent increase in net worth.

At the same time, racial and ethnic minorities saw slower income gains in the period through 2021. Black and Hispanic households saw small declines in earnings after adjusting for inflation, while white families saw a modest increase.

For the first time, the report included data on Asian families, who had the highest median net worth of any racial or ethnic group.

While the data in the report is slightly dated, it underscores what a strong position American families were in as they exited the pandemic. Solid net worth and growing incomes have helped people to continue spending into 2023, which has helped to keep the economy growing at a solid pace even when the Fed has been lifting interest rates to cool it down.

That resilience has stoked hope that the Fed might be able to pull off a “soft landing,” one in which it slows the economy gently without crushing consumers so much that it plunges America into a recession.

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